Denny Hamlin dominated, but Carl Edwards played the fuel mileage game to perfection to win the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and set up a dramatic season finale next week in South Florida.
Hamlin led 190 of 312 laps, but pitted with 14 laps to go, while Edwards and Jimmie Johnson stayed out, barely making it on fuel until the end.
In the final rundown, Edwards drove to victory in his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, breaking a 70-race winless streak that stretched back to Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2008. Spring Phoenix winner Ryan Newman was second in his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, followed by Joey Logano's No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Greg Biffle in a second Roush Ford.
Now, with only next Sunday’s Ford 400 on the schedule, Hamlin leads Johnson by 15 points and is 46 up on Harvick.
Edwards started from the pole after being fastest in qualifying and all three practice sessions.
On Lap 2, Brendan Gaughan blew a right-front tire and hit the wall, bringing out a caution flag.
The race restarted on Lap 7, Edwards leading Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger. Busch immediately jumped into the lead, Edwards slotting into second.On Lap 27, Edwards retook the point, his Ford continuing to set a blisteringly fast pace.
Brad Keselowski brought out the day’s second caution with a wall-banger on Lap 59, which ultimately ended up with the leaders all on pit road.
Edwards held the lead on pit road over Hamlin and brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. Johnson came out 11th, one spot ahead of Harvick, as the race resumed under green on Lap 66.
Once the green flew, Hamlin immediately went to the front for the first time on the afternoon, picking up the critical 5 bonus points. His lead was 2.470 seconds on Lap 100, when a caution flew for an errant water bottle on the track.
Edwards grabbed the lead on pit road, but Hamlin snatched it right back on Lap 106, the first green-flag lap after the caution.
At Lap 156, the halfway point of the race, Hamlin’s lead was 1.505 seconds over Edwards, Kyle Busch, Johnson and Tony Stewart.
As Hamlin piled up the laps led, his challengers were helpless to do anything. Johnson ran as high as third, but fell out of the top five by Lap 210. At that point, Harvick was stuck in fourth behind Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Edwards.
On Lap 222, Robby Gordon spun out in Turn 2, giving teams time to make a critical set of adjustments on pit road. Whatever hopes Harvick had of winning seemingly went out the window, when he had to make a second pit stop for a loose lugnut, which dropped him to 18th.
Kyle Busch took over the lead on pit road, out front for the Lap 229 restart. But that lead lasted less than a lap before Hamlin again was on point, with Edwards third and Johnson fourth.
Edwards motored past Busch to take over the runner-up spot on Lap 232, and just two laps later, Travis Kvapil spun to bring out another yellow.
The green waved on Lap 240, Johnson moving to third behind Hamlin and Edwards. Johnson couldn’t hold the spot, however, as Busch moved back to third.
By Lap 260, Edwards had closed on Hamlin’s tail, applying pressure for the lead. On Lap 266, Edwards finally made the pass for the top spot. Three laps after that, Juan Pablo Montoya took fourth from Johnson.
But everyone with the possible exception of Harvick was going to have to stop for gas, which put the outcome very much in doubt.
Hamlin was the first of the leaders to come in, pitting on Lap 298. Jeff Burton came in on Lap 304, but everyone else stayed out, and at the line it was Edwards claiming a huge victory.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.