It was NASCAR’s dream. Punch and counterpunch—the top two drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup trading shots in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Yes, Kasey Kahne won the race—his first victory of the season and the 12th of his career—but Edwards and Stewart dominated the action as their battle for the 2011 championship remained as close as it was at the start of the day.
In a race between the only two drivers mathematically alive for the Cup championship, Edwards finished second and Stewart third, but Stewart led the most laps for the second straight week and leaves Phoenix three points behind Edwards as the drivers prepare to settle the issue in the season finale next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Jeff Burton ran fourth at Phoenix with Ryan Newman in fifth. AJ Allmendinger, David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer completed the top 10.
“We couldn’t ask for anything more,” Edwards said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s neat to be able to go to Homestead and race it out. I’m sure these guys (Stewart’s team) are going to be good down there—they’re fast on the mile-and-a-halfs.
“I’m just proud of my guys today. They did a great job on pit road. Tony was really fast, and we got our car tuned in, and we were able to go up there and race with them and compete. It was just a good hard-fought day, and I’m really pumped about Homestead.”
Stewart appeared poised to win his fifth race in the Chase before the handling on his No. 14 Chevrolet deteriorated slightly in the final 100 laps.
“We just came up two spots shy,” Stewart said. “It was just a little too loose on entry those last two runs there. I thought that Darian (crew chief Darian Grubb) made a really good call there with just gas only at the end (on Stewart’s final pit stop on Lap 294), and we were able to run Jeff (Burton) down there and get back to third.
“Every point counts right now, and that’s why we raced Carl so hard and Kasey so hard to make sure we led enough laps to lead the most laps today (160). We are going for every single point we can get.”
Stewart said the formula for winning the title is simple.
“Just keep doing what we’re doing,” Stewart said. “We’re going to keep the pressure on him, and we’re going to make him sweat it out.”
Seven more drivers, all of whom started the Chase nine weeks ago with hopes of hoisting the Sprint Cup, were eliminated from championship contention. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch joined Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Newman in a group that will be fighting for positions in the standings but not for a title.
In Johnson’s case, the run of consecutive championships ends at five.
Kahne, who will be Johnson’s teammate next year, chalked up a win for Red Bull Racing, whose owner/sponsor is withdrawing from that role at the end of the season, leaving the future of the organization in doubt.
Kahne pitted early during a late cycle of green-flag stops and took the lead on Lap 299 of 312 when Keselowski came to pit road. Edwards chased him for the final 14 circuits but finished .802 seconds behind.
“We have great cars,” said Kahne, who will leave Red Bull and its uncertain future for a stable seat at Hendrick Motorsports next season. “I feel like each week I’m going to the racetrack with as good a car as anybody out there, which has been really nice this season.
“We haven’t won in a while (since September 2009 at Atlanta). We put the whole race together today and then had a little luck. Everything that falls into winning a race, we had it today.”
Leading only those final 14 laps, Kahne stole the spotlight from the slugfest between Edwards and Stewart, but the action between the contenders overshadowed even Kahne’s win.
After a bold pass to the outside gave Stewart the lead over Kenseth, the polesitter, on Lap 36, Stewart began to rack up laps led, like so many sharp body blows to Edwards’ title hopes. But Edwards refused to fall.
Stewart dominated the first half of the race, but on Lap 167, Edwards passed Kenseth to lead for the first time. On that same Lap Stewart surged past Kenseth into second.
Edwards held Stewart at bay after a restart on Lap 173, but Stewart returned the favor after Brian Vickers wrecked Kenseth—belated revenge for an altercation at Martinsville—in Turn 3 on Lap 177. Stewart powered around Edwards on Lap 182, clearing him off Turn 4 with a make-yourself-stay-in-the-gas-and-hold-your-breath determination that brought fans in the grandstands to their feet.
Edwards chased Stewart for 39 laps thereafter, getting an eyeful of the TV panel on Stewart’s No. 14 as he tried everything in his repertoire to make a pass. Robby Gordon’s crash in Turn 3 on Lap 220, however, changed the game in Edwards’ favor.
On Lap 225, Stewart and Edwards restarted third and fourth, respectively behind Kurt Busch and Paul Menard, both of whom had used two-tire stops to get to the front of the field. Edwards moved forward, but Stewart fell back, as his handling started to suffer.
With an aggressive pass of Burton with nine laps left, however, Stewart made sure that Edwards wouldn’t leave Phoenix with a net gain in points—not even one.
“It may come to that,” Stewart said after the race.