- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

AVONDALE, Ariz. | Carl Edwards chipped into Jimmie Johnson’s points lead with consecutive victories at Atlanta and Texas. Now the championship race has moved into the desert, where Johnson has traditionally turned up the heat on the competition.

This visit is already shaping up to be a repeat: Johnson won the pole at Phoenix International Raceway, and when the sun sets on Sunday’s race, Johnson hopes Edwards can no longer be seen in his rearview mirror.

The two-time defending series champion has a 106-point lead over Edwards, and can clinch his third title if he gains 56 points over Edwards on Sunday and simply starts the season finale next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Not wanting to use a calculator in the cockpit of his Chevrolet, Johnson will simply run hard and see where he is at the checkered flag.

“My goal is to outrun those guys,” Johnson said. “My goal’s to win the race, try to lead the most laps, gain points on those guys so that we go to Homestead with as many points as we can. That’s truthfully the goal. I hope it works that way. No telling it will. But that’s what we’re working on.”

If history is any indication, Johnson will deliver.

He finished second here in 2006 to widen his points lead from 17 to 63 over Matt Kenseth headed into the finale, a race in which he locked up his first championship a week later.

A year ago, Johnson notched a fourth consecutive victory to stretch his 30-point lead over Jeff Gordon to a heartbreaking 86 points. When Johnson crossed the finish line, Gordon and his entire crew knew their Hendrick Motorsports teammate had just won a second straight championship, and Homestead had been reduced to a coronation.

Now Johnson, winner of the last two Phoenix races, hopes a favorable outcome Sunday will reduce Homestead to a 400-mile victory lap. But he’s taking nothing for granted.

“I’m just going to plan on the worst case scenario for myself, which is [Edwards is] going to have the fastest car and he’s coming,” Johnson said. “Then that way I’m prepared from A-to-Z on where I need to be mentally. So we’ll just kind of see what happens.”

The two contenders were neck and neck in Saturday’s first practice session, which was paced by Kevin Harvick with Edwards and Johnson running a close second and third. The final session gave Edwards optimism: Johnson slipped to 16th on the speed chart, while Edwards finished in 12th.

Victories the last two weeks have pulled Edwards onto Johnson’s bumper, but he’s still got plenty of speed bumps remaining. No driver in NASCAR history has overcome the deficit Edwards is in, and since the Chase debuted in 2004, the leader at this point of the season has won the title every year.

Edwards has a carefree attitude about the task and is adamant he’ll race Sunday as if it were any other race.

“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Edwards said. “We can just go out and be aggressive and take chances. I can race as hard as I want. I mean, it’s cool.”

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