Edwards Wins, Hamlin's Chase Lead Thins
Roush Fenway Racing star Carl Edwards was breaking a 70-race winless streak while top-three Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were setting up the closest finish to the 10-race championship gauntlet with respective 12th-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes at Phoenix International Raceway.
Hamlin will enter the Nov. 21 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 15-point lead over second-place Chase for the Sprint Cup contender Jimmie Johnson and a 46-point cushion on third-place championship competitor Kevin Harvick.
The current standings leader was in prime position to extend the 33-point lead he held over the four-time and defending series champion Johnson at PIR after taking the lead for the fourth time on Lap 229 of the 312-lap battle. Hamlin surrendered the top spot on the grid to Edwards 36 laps later.
Hamlin was racing a comfortable second before he was forced to dive to pit road to fuel his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car on Lap 298. He rejoined the fray 19th on Lap 300 and was able to salvage a respectable, but disappointing finish just outside the race top 10 after leading an event-best 190 laps.
"I'm frustrated, trust me. This is one of the bigger let downs I've had. Knowing that we had a very, very good points lead with 15 or 20 to go that quickly diminishes, it hurts. It hurts when you have a car that can possibly win. I wasn't aware that anyone was going to try to stretch it (fuel mileage) and make it, so I went out there and ran as hard as I could. Unfortunately, our car didn't have as good of fuel mileage as everyone else's so we had to stop.
"I did everything I was supposed to do today. Things didn't work out for me. It could have been a lot worse. We could have lost the points lead. Regardless, you never know what can happen in the final race. I hate that it boils down to the final race, but that's what fans love. I felt like we've been the best car over this Chase and we might not win it," Hamlin said.
He will enter the Homestead-Miami title tilt with eight victories, 14 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes. He earned his first Miami victory last season and placed third there in both 2007 and 2006.
"I have to leave Phoenix in Phoenix. I can tell you, I'm going to use this as motivation for next week to go out there and try to win. If you look at history, it looks good for us. We just hope to have a clean race next week and the best car win. That's all that we can ask for to crown the champ," he added.
Johnson won the fuel mileage battle by working with crew chief Chad Knaus to race 89 laps on one tank of fuel en route to picking up the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports car's 16th top-five and 22nd top-10 finish of the season.
"I did anything I could to stay out of the throttle. We gave up a couple of positions at the end and when driving to pit road (after the race) I thought, 'Man, I should have fought a little harder for those two spots because right now every point counts.'
"It was just a solid performance. We ran well all day long. Our pit stops were phenomenal and kept us out of trouble. We had to work whatever magic we could there at the end and save fuel," said Johnson, who didn't lead a race lap after winning three of the last four Phoenix events. He is optimistic about his chances to challenge for his fifth straight Chase title on a track where he placed fifth last season and produced a total of three top-five and six top-10 finishes in nine career starts.
"We have one heck of a points race going into Miami. I'm pumped. We're ready to race. I know what my mindset is and I hope that the pressure of us being on his (Hamlin) heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week, he and his crew. These guys better be on their toes. Not only do they have the No. 48 to worry about, but they have the No. 29 (Kevin Harvick). It's going to be a hell of a show," Johnson added.
Harvick completed a solid day in Phoenix with his 15th top-five and 25th top-10 finish of the season. The performance helped him gain 13 championship points on Hamlin. Harvick's see-saw Phoenix day saw his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing car sitting 32nd on Lap 60, fourth on Lap 210, 14th on Lap 255 and having to rebound from an extra pit stop on Lap 226 when his crew left a lug nut off a tire during a Lap 225 caution pit stop.
"I'm not going to lie to you. I was pretty down when we had the pit stop problem. Gil (Martin, crew chief) and Richard (Childress) just kept harping at me to stay after it, stay after it. I got over it about 15 laps into the run there and we started picking them off.
"They thought we could make it (to the end on fuel), no problem, but they were still a little bit nervous about it. When I heard them say we were good I knew we at least had a chance just for the fact that the race tended to have a lot of green flag runs. Our mistake wound up being something that gained us more points than if we would have not made the mistake," he said.
Harvick will soldier on in his quest for his first series championship holding three victories, 15 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes this season. He placed third in last season's Homesetad-Miami event and manufactured four top-five and seven top-10 finishes there in nine career starts. "I will take these guys up against anybody. I believe those guys on pit road can do the best job and I never said a word about anything on the pit stop (mistake today) because they've done such a good job over the last four weeks and we just have to keep doing that.
"Our car will be fast next week, it was fast this week - not quite as good as the 99 (Edwards) or the 11, but we never really got to restart up there with them. We just have to be aggressive. Homestead has been a great race track, statistically. It's our best race track on the circuit, so we're looking forward to it," he said.
Edwards drove to his last series victory on Nov. 16, 2008 at Homestead-Miami. That effort capped a nine-win campaign in which he claimed the checkered flag for three of the final four events. He placed a career-best second in the championship standings that season after taking 19 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes.
His Phoenix victory brings his seven-year career total to 17 and gives him eight top-five and 18 top-10 finishes this season. He remains fourth in the Chase standings after driving a stellar No. 99 machine that started from the pole position after setting a new series track qualifying record, never slid lower than third in the field and led the race five times for a total of 93 laps. He closed out the final 88 race laps on one tank of fuel.
"I saved fuel for only half of that last run. I needed (Crew Chief) Bob Osborne to tell me what to do. I thought I should save fuel and he was telling me lap times like he wanted me to go faster. I told him to tell me exactly what he wanted because I was a little confused as to whether we could even make it," Edwards said.
With his Saturday NASCAR Nationwide Series Phoenix victory, Edwards Sprint Cup Series effort completed a weekend Phoenix sweep and the first sweep since Kyle Busch rolled to consecutive NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide and Sprint Cup victories at Bristol Motor Speedway in March.
"It's an amazing week. As racecar drivers, you go along and things aren't going the way you want. They haven't been going the way I want in my Cup car for a long time and to have a weekend like this reminds me that, hey, we can do this. We can get to Victory Lane. It means a lot for the people that supported me, my sponsors and my fans. Hopefully, this is the start of something regular. We're getting better and it's good," Edwards said.
Ryan Newman placed second at Phoenix, Joey Logano took third and Greg Biffle finished fourth.
Race coverage from Homestead-Miami Speedway is scheduled for a 2:00 p.m., start on Motor Racing Network Radio and Sirius XM 128 on Nov. 21. ESPN is slated to begin coverage at 3:00 p.m.
Story by Mike Schmaltz