Carl Edwards' celebratory backflip has finally returned in the Sprint Cup Series.
Edwards ended a two-year winless streak in NASCAR's top racing circuit on Sunday by taking the checkered flag for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. It was Edwards' 20th career win in the series but his first since March 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which is the site of next weekend's race.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver had been without a victory in the last 70 Sprint Cup races., matching the longest of his career. He also was 0-70 before that streak concluded in the fall event at Phoenix in November 2010.
After his cool-down lap, Edwards performed his long-awaited backflip from his No. 99 Ford at the start/finish line and then headed to the grandstands to celebrate with the race fans.
"To be in victory lane this early in the season, to have a car like we had today is really, really great," Edwards said. "This win feels as good or better than any win I've ever had, so I'm very excited about it."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. held the lead before a late-race round of pit stops under caution. Edwards beat Earnhardt out of the pits and took over the top spot with 78 laps remaining.
During the restart, Edwards pulled away when Earnhardt spun his tires and allowed Jimmie Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 one week ago, to slip by and take second. Edwards conserved enough fuel to take him to the finish.
An accident involving Ken Schrader in the closing laps set up a green-white- checkered finish. Brad Keselowski, the defending series champion, pushed Edwards from behind on the restart, which helped Edwards pull away from Johnson.
"The first thing that came to my mind is now if we win it, we've really earned it, because we did have a great pit crew and great pit strategy today," said Edwards, who led a race-high 122 laps on this relatively flat one-mile oval. "I felt pretty good with two or three laps to go that we were going to walk away with that race, and when the caution came out I said, 'okay, now we're going to have to earn it.'
"It made me not real nervous, but it made me really buckle down and work hard. A heart rate monitor on me would have been pretty interesting probably at that point, because I knew it was going to be tough."
With new crew chief Jimmy Fennig, Edwards had a horrible Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway this past month. He wrecked during the Daytona 500 and the twin-qualifiers. He also crashed in two separate practices and during a test session there in January. Edwards finished 33rd in last week's season- opener.
Team owner Jack Roush paired Fennig with Edwards after Edwards struggled last season, failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and finishing 15th in the point standings. He ended the 2011 season in a points tie with champion Tony Stewart.
"When we asked Jimmy if he would take Carl and take me for another year and do this thing, he had his requirements," Roush said. "He wanted to change a few things, and he didn't want to see as much of me as I'd shown to (Edwards' previous crew chief) Bob (Osborne)."
While Edwards held a sizeable lead over the field during the final lap, fourth-place runner Denny Hamlin, who won last year's spring race at Phoenix, dove down onto the apron of the track coming out of turn 4 and attempted to pass Johnson and Keselowski for position. Johnson edged Hamlin to the finish line by just inches for second place.
"Denny got a huge run, cut the corner down there and cleared us both," Johnson said. "But I felt like I still had a chance if I just hung on the outside around turns 3 and 4, and I was able to do that and just kind of beat him back to the finish."
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, had to start from the rear of the field due to engine changes. Both drivers experienced unrelated problems with the motors on their Toyotas following Saturday's final practice. Busch qualified fourth and Hamlin eighth on Friday.
"We overachieved a ton today," Hamlin said after his third-place run. "I think we didn't run as good as I hoped, but we finished better than I imagined after about halfway through today's race."
Keselowski finished fourth, and Earnhardt was fifth.
Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton completed the top-10.
Danica Patrick finished 39th after being involved in a hard crash on lap 185. Patrick, who was running on the lead lap in 26th at the time of her incident, blew a right-front tire coming out of turn 4 and slammed into the outside wall before dropping down the track and collecting David Ragan. She was not injured but parts and pieces from her car were littered throughout the frontstretch.
"Whenever those right-front (tires) go, these cars always hit hard, because you hit it straight on instead of broadside," Patrick said. "It took a hard hit both sides, and I'm fine."
Patrick began her rookie season in Sprint Cup by starting on the pole and finishing eighth in the Daytona 500.
After the second race of the season, Johnson, the five-time series champion, holds an eight-point lead over Earnhardt and Keselowski. Patrick dropped from eighth to 22nd in the standings.
"For me, it just sucks to lose the points," she said.