AVONDALE, ARIZ. — Jimmie Johnson holds the points lead over teammate Jeff Gordon as NASCAR's title fight heads to its next-to-last race, but Gordon holds the edge in the desert.
Despite five championships between them, neither of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers had won at Phoenix International Raceway until this year.
Gordon broke through in April with an emotional win on the one-mile oval here just west of Phoenix that, at the time, tied him with the late Dale Earnhardt for career Cup victories.
Gordon hopes to carry that edge into Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 stock car race because he's 30 points behind Johnson, who has won the last three consecutive races in his No. 48 Chevrolet.
Qualifying is today to set the race's 43-car field. Gordon won the pole position a year ago, and Kevin Harvick won the race.
"You have to give credit to Jimmie and the 48 crew," Gordon said. "But 30 points isn't that much. They're on a roll right now and we've got to answer this weekend."
After Phoenix, the series ends its 36-race season -- and the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship playoff -- with the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida on Nov. 18.
Drivers will use NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow for this race, then drive their conventional cars for the last time on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami track. The Car of Tomorrow becomes mandatory next season.
Gordon has finished in the top 10 in the last three Cup races at Martinsville, Va., Atlanta and Fort Worth. Yet he has dropped 98 points to Johnson because of Johnson's winning streak, which has given the El Cajon-based driver a series-high nine wins overall this year.
Johnson raised eyebrows last week at Texas Motor Speedway by dueling Matt Kenseth in the closing laps, a tactic that might have robbed Johnson of valuable points if the two had collided.
But Kyle Busch -- another Hendrick teammate who won his second Cup race here in 2005 -- said Johnson's move didn't surprise him. "Not very often do you see [Johnson] spin out and crash and wreck somebody else," Busch told reporters this week. "He did what any racer would do and that's challenge for the win."
Clint Bowyer is a distant third in the Chase, 181 points behind Johnson, and the others are all 300 points or more back, including Busch, who's fourth. The most points a driver can earn in a race is 195.
Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart also remain alive. But the other six have been mathematically eliminated: Jeff Burton, Harvick, Kyle's older brother Kurt Busch, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Even so, the two Busch brothers -- who grew up in Las Vegas and raced at Phoenix International before reaching the Cup series -- also are seen as contenders to win Sunday.
Kurt Busch, who drives for Penske Racing South, also won the spring race here in 2005.
Harvick is another favorite, having won both Cup races here in 2006 for Richard Childress Racing. The Bakersfield native also cut his teeth here when he was coming up through NASCAR's ranks.
Stewart also should be strong. The two-time Cup champion with Joe Gibbs Racing has raced six types of cars at Phoenix International in his career, and won the Cup race here in 1999. He also finished second in the last two races in the desert.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is wrapping up his career with his father's namesake team in preparation of moving to Hendrick next year, also has a good record here, having won in 2003 and 2004.