Mark Martin is probably the sentimental favorite to win NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship.
The hard-truth favorite? Still Jimmie Johnson.
His team is so good, especially at Phoenix, that the odds of a historic fourth consecutive championship are still quite good.
Johnson leads Martin by 73 points, which means Martin can catch him after this weekend. But even if Martin wins the race, there's no guarantee that will happen.
Remember the face Carl Edwards made in Atlanta last year when, after winning the race, he learned Johnson, who struggled all day, finished second? (It's the face I imagine Edwards would make if someone told him Christmas was canceled forever and he never was allowed to work out again.)
That face said it all.
Your best isn't good enough against Johnson - even when he runs into trouble.
Johnson's team had built a large lead heading into Talladega because that's where they knew an early accident could derail them.
It came in handy.
Who's to judge? Let's all make a pact not to judge a new crew chief/driver combination in its first few races.
Sometimes a crew chief change shakes things up enough to cause a spike in performance. Sometimes it takes time for chemistry to develop, and success is elusive at first.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran well in new crew chief Lance McGrew's first few races. But that didn't mean the fix was perfect.
Similarly, just because Kyle Busch nearly won Sunday in Texas before running out of gas doesn't mean Dave Rogers will fix what ails the No. 18 team.
Busch won a lot of races early on with his last crew chief too. He was the best driver in the circuit for a while - unstoppable even.
They could be the fix. It's just too soon to tell.
Pit stops: Earnhardt became tabloid fodder this week. A story appeared in the National Enquirer citing anonymous second- and third-hand sources that Earnhardt was in a "death spiral." Ah, the joys of celebrity. … Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 1 car, driven by Martin Truex Jr., was docked 50 points in the standings for being too low in postrace inspection. Crew chief Kevin Manion was fined $50,000. … In more bad news for EGR, Aric Almirola reportedly sued the team for breach of contract last week. Almirola was in seven races for the team this year in the No. 8 Chevrolet. The team shut down his operation because of a lack of sponsorship. … Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Michigan International Speedway's Tim Booth are finalists for the Home Depot National Motorsports Press Association Humanitarian Award. The award goes to the person in NASCAR who has contributed the most to his or her community and has had the most impact with his or her contributions. … The battle to get into the top 35 heading into next season isn't close this year. EGR's No. 34 car, driven mostly by John Andretti, is in 35th place, 117 points ahead of Red Bull Racing's No. 82 car, driven by Scott Speed. … Even after being docked 25 points this week for a failed inspection, Kyle Busch almost certainly will win the Nationwide Series championship. Busch leads Edwards by 247 points. In NASCAR's Camping World truck series, Ron Hornaday Jr. leads second-place Matt Crafton by 117 points.
- Tania Ganguli