As Denny Hamlin put it, Carl Edwards is “relevant again” after winning Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway in a green-white-checkered-flag finish that took the race four laps past its posted distance of 312 laps.
In beating Jimmie Johnson to the finish line by 1.024 seconds, Edwards broke a winless streak that had reached 70 races, dating to Mar. 6, 2011 at Las Vegas. Remarkably, Edwards broke another 70-race drought at the one-mile track in the Sonoran desert when he won at Phoenix in November 2010.
Behind Edwards and Johnson, Denny Hamlin ran third, making the most of a daredevil move that cut the backstretch dogleg on the last lap and got his No. 11 Toyota past the No. 2 Ford of reigning series champion Brad Keselowski, who came home fourth.
It was Keselowski, though, driving a Ford after Penske Racing’s between-season switch from Dodge, who gave Edwards the push that propelled him to the front on the final restart on Lap 315.
For his part, Edwards hopes the momentum of his 20th career victory continues throughout the season.
“When you’re struggling, it seems like time slows down,” Edwards said after being told of Hamlin’s “relevant” comment. “You’re working harder, you’re trying more, you’re questioning yourself more. … (Last year) was one of the longest years of my life, to work that hard and not get the victories.
“I’m very, very happy to be back in the mix here. A victory is huge for so many reasons. Last year we didn’t make the Chase. For me to sit home, while everybody was at the Chase stuff in Vegas—that was a little bit of a shock to me. I did not like that at all.
“So to get a victory helps us be in a better position for the Chase. It just feels good to win. So, yeah, I hope Denny’s right. I hope we’re relevant or more than relevant all year. I hope we dominate this thing.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth, losing his winning chances when he spun his tires on the penultimate restart on Lap 243. Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.
Edwards No. 99 Ford Fusion led 67 straight green-flag laps after the restart on Lap 243, but Ken Schrader’s crash on Lap 309 sent the race to overtime and gave the crew chiefs of the leading cars nervous moments as they tried to recalculate fuel mileage.
The top-14 cars stayed out for a restart on Lap 315, and Edwards had enough gas to complete two laps and win the race.
On the last two restarts, Johnson felt Edwards played fast and loose with the zone, delineated by red marks on the wall, within which the leader is required to accelerate.
“I felt like Carl didn’t follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts, and it gives the leader a huge advantage when that happens,” Johnson said. “You’re supposed to wait until you get between the two lines and take off, and this was all going on before (the restart zone).”
Naturally enough, Edwards had a completely different view of the restart. Though Johnson said he made a point of maintaining pace car speed, Edwards thought Johnson was speeding up as the cars approached the start.
“Usually the guy in second hangs back a little bit, and he pulled up there and I thought, ‘Why’s he doing that?'” Edwards said. “Yeah, maybe I was slowing down, but I wasn’t trying to. I thought he was speeding up. I thought it was pretty genius what he was doing, because it kind of got me off of my game.
“But then, when I went, I think he maybe wasn’t looking at me or something, because he waited just a little bit too long to go. But, truthfully, that was not by design. I was not trying to do anything tricky. I thought he was.”
Danica Patrick’s hard crash on Lap 185 caused the sixth caution of the race. The right front tire on Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet SS exploded without warning as the car rolled through Turn 4. The car bounced off the outside wall into the path of David Ragan’s Ford.
The resulting collision ripped the driver’s-side door off Patrick’s car and knocked the protective foam out of the door frame. Patrick walked away from the wreck but ended the day in 39th place.
That caution, however, proved a boon to her former car owner, Earnhardt, who was first off pit road for a restart on Lap 194. Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy took a liking to the clean air and remained on point, pacing teammate Johnson as the Hendrick Motorsports pair opened a one-second lead over Matt Kenseth in third.
Forty laps into the green-flag, Earnhardt had widened his edge over Johnson to .928 seconds before the yellow flag flew on Lap 236 for David Gilliland’s hard contact with the outside wall in Turn 1, the result of another blown right front tire.
That caution, the seventh of the race, put Kyle Busch back on the lead lap. Busch went a lap down after spinning into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 48 and persevered until he was awarded a free pass as the highest-scored lapped car when Gilliland wrecked.
Busch had started at the rear of the field because of an eleventh-hour engine change Sunday morning. The engine in his No. 18 Camry suffered a part failure during warmup, the result of a reassembly error.