And then there two races left in this 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship season.
Hard to believe that just nine months ago, the NASCAR circuit was preparing for the second race of the year, dubbed as the first legit race of the Gen-6 cars. Drivers and crew chiefs were gathering telemetry and learning about the nuances of this brand new machine. 33 races later, these same teams back in March return back to Avondale, AZ venue for the penultimate round of the Cup schedule, this time with a championship in mind and blistering fast speeds.
PIR, which was refitted and repaved back in 2011, is a sort of engima for the NASCAR teams, with a narrow dogleg along the backstretch that has the drivers making that diving maneuver into the apron and then driving hard back into turns three and four. At times, it drives like a superspeedway and on other occasions, it's a bit of a short track with its temperance. "The Valley of the Sun" has seen its share of dramatic events, such as the Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer feud of last year, Carl Edwards snapping a nearly two-year long winless drought in 2010, and Kyle Busch's '05 victory among recent highlights at this facility.
It's about having a car that has great corner entry speed, solid brakes, and a driver who can wheel that machine on and off the preferred lines. Unlike the old PIR, this track is a rough, fast, and sometimes, vengeful speedway that loves to collect sheet metal, boil some tempers, and oh yea, truly make winning about as sweet as it gets in NASCAR racing. Consider it like the Hunger Games of stock car racing, as it's about as treacherous as any NASCAR track gets for even the best talents of the sport.
Although the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship is most likely down to a two horse race with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, there are other intriguing storylines to follow. For one, can Cup stars like Denny Hamlin or Clint Bowyer snap their long winless streaks? Both Toyota drivers haven't tasted the thrills of Victory Lane and their consecutive seasons of wins could be in jeopardy in these next two rounds of Cup racing.
Other storylines include of course, the supposed rivalry between Gordon and Bowyer. Some wonder if the two drivers will combat each other once more and repeat their fight from last November. Then there's also the last few races for Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick with their respective teams (Furniture Row and Richard Childress Racing), as both drivers will take their services to the fledgling Stewart-Haas Racing team. Will they be able to end their tenures on a high note or is a bittersweet goodbye for Busch and Harvick?
And for us here on The Podium Finish, it's a great final two race stretch for the inaugural #TeamTPFCup Championship. While yours truly still holds the points lead, Nick Brincks and Jessica Tow won the Texas edition of our title race, thus meaning that both will respectively field two questions a piece to our panelists. This week, it's Shelby Parrack, Matt Kacar, and yours truly serving as the panelists for this week's edition of...."Trending Topics!"
Question 1 (by Nick Brincks)
With two races left, it's safe to say we have a two driver fight for the Cup. Of the 11 other Chasers, who has been the biggest disappointment so far in the Chase?
Parrack : I hate to say it, but I'm going to say Kurt Busch, as he hasn't been making as much noise these last eight races as he had all through the rest of the season.
Kacar : I would have to say that Kasey Kahne has been the biggest disappointment. Every time he makes the chase people always say he is one of the favorites but year after year he is never close to winning the championship. And this year is no different. Him and Kyle Busch have the same problems when it comes to the Chase. They choke during it.
Tiongson : I'd have to give this unfortunate honor to Clint Bowyer. I truly expected him to win some races, and he's got two chances left to prove me wrong. But he's been pedestrian for the most part. It's not to say that the driver and team aren't good but this team isn't firing on all cylinders.
Question 2 (by Nick Brincks)
How would you grade the 2013 Sprint Cup season to this point?
Parrack : I'm going to give it a B. Both my drivers have won, but neither are Chase contenders though. As for the racing, I can't complain, as there have been a few races (such as last weeks) that I wish was better but then other races have made up for the not so thrilling ones!
Kacar : The 2013 Sprint Cup season started off with a lot of hype based all around the Gen-6 car. But in my opinion, it has been a major disappointment. The racing has in my opinion been worse then last year and two drivers have basically dominated the whole season.
Tiongson : It's not been a terribly bad one. I might be biased, but after finally attending my first two NASCAR races at my hometown track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, I have to say it's my favorite one thus far. And for the friends I've met and for a special love who I can share race days with, I'll never forget this year.
Question 3 (by Jessica Tow)
By now it is safe to say that the Chase has turned into a two man battle. Going into Phoenix, who do you believe has the advantage? Matt Kenseth or Jimmie Johnson?
Parrack : I'm going to say Matt Kenseth without any good reason, other than I don't want Jimmie Johnson having any advantage!
Kacar : I would say Jimmie Johnson has the advantage now. He outscored Kenseth at a 1.5 mile track which had been Kenseth's best all year long. Add in that we are at Phoenix this week which is probably JJ's best track. At this point, the title is his to lose.
Tiongson : I guess I'll serve as the tiebreaker here and have to say that Matt Kenseth has the advantage. As Darrell Waltrip once said, "I'd rather be the hunter than the hunted," and Johnson is the bulls' eye of NASCAR right now. We saw how he was a target at Martinsville with Greg Biffle. Meanwhile, Kenseth isn't all that far behind (seven points) from the lead, so a few good races and keeping ahead of that No. 48 Chevy, and he'll hoist that trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend.
Question 4 (by Jessica Tow)
Martin Truex Jr. has announced that he will be piloting the No. 78 car for Furniture Row Racing next year and beyond. Given all that he has been going through, how do you think Truex Jr. will fare with this new team?
Parrack : Truthfully, I think he will do great there. We know that car is capable of wins and Chase caliber performance, and he needs a steady ride after the year he has had. I'm excited to see what he can do away from MWR!
Kacar : Truex is not as good of a driver as Kurt Busch is so I expect some drop off when he drives the 78 car next year. That team probably won't make the Chase next year. Personally, Truex is way overrated as a driver.
Tiongson : I have to say that this is a good pairing for 2014. While we can't deny how much raw talent Kurt Busch has and has truly succeeded with that No. 78 Chevy team, they're not dropping off too badly performance wise with Martin Truex Jr. I do see them winning at least a race or two and at least getting into the top-10 points standings next year.
Before we get to this weekend's race picks, let's check out the #TeamTPFCup points standings heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Speedway:
Rob Tiongson - 304 points
Matt Kacar - 288 points
Jessica Tow - 279 points
Nick Brincks - 262 points
Shelby Parrack - 236 points
Just 16 points separate Matt from taking the points lead, but he's got a determined Jessica who's just nine markers from the runner up spot. It's a close battle and anything can happen here at Phoenix. Who'll hoist the #TeamTPFCup (virtually)? Well let's take the first steps in determining that by revealing our race picks for the Advocare 500K at Phoenix International Raceway!
Tiongson : After much contemplating, I'm gonna go with a FedEx delivery at Phoenix for Victory Lane. I jinxed my lady's pick, so this time, I'm going with a suggestion of hers - Denny Hamlin. GO Team Random!
Kacar : Going with Denny Hamlin for the win.
Tow : I think on the radio show I picked Matt Kenseth with Kevin Harvick as my dark horse so I'll stick with those Kenseth for the surefire pick.
Brincks : I'll pick Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week. He's had three second place finishes in the Chase and he's won at Phoenix before.
Parrack : Going with Joey Logano, as he's been strong the past few weeks and he's looked great in practice and qualifying! Plus I think I need a change in pace if I want to get myself out of last!
And that wraps up this week's edition of Track Talk, and as always, I want to thank Matt, Jessica, Shelby, and Nick for making this piece rock! Till next time, if you want in or have suggestions or comments about Track Talk, let us know what you think by tweeting us @ThePodiumFinish and using hash tag #TrackTalk!