Cousin Carl Edwards lit up the track in qualifying edging out the ‘Dinger’ AJ Allmendinger by 3/1000’s of a second to take the pole at Phoenix International Raceway for the Kobalt Tools 500. Three of the top four qualifiers and four of the top ten had Roush power under the hood.
Sprint Cup Chase contenders Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick qualified their cars 17th, 21st and 29th respectively. Edwards, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch were up front early, but the three Chase contenders showed why they are the three left standing with two races to go, and by lap 174 all three were in the top ten.
Hamlin showed his strength leading the way, but in a twist of fate from last week at Texas, Hamlin’s crew was lagging a little bit on pit road while Johnson’s crew was consistently one of the cars with the fastest stops.
Kevin Harvick needed to get up ahead of Johnson and Hamlin to make up points on the two if he was to have any chance for the Sprint Cup Championship at the season finale in at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but after working his way up from the back of the field, his crew missed a lug nut while pitting for a caution brought out by Robbie Gordon’ spinning car. After coming back in the pits Harvick restarted in 19th and had to work his way back through the field all over again.
By lap 217 Denny Hamlin had clinched the most laps led and assured himself of 10 extra points towards his NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship run. As the sun set on the later part of the race, Jimmie Johnson found his way up to Denny Hamlin’s rear bumper, as the two diced with Carl Edwards and Hamlin’s team mate Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick, fighting a car that would not turn, barreled his way back through the field.
NASCAR Sprint Cup veterans Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton had strong runs as well as Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya and father-to-be Ryan Newman. Fuel mileage became a consideration with 70 laps to go. Both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson did not have enough fuel to finish, but Kevin Harvick’s penalty allowed him to top off the tank and crew chief Gil Martin assured the #29 driver he had enough to go the distance.
With less than 50 laps to go, Carl Edwards took the lead back from Hamlin, hoping that the caution laps allowed the #99 Ford to save enough fuel to make it to the checkers. Jimmie Johnson dropped positions to Montoya and Newman, while Harvick stormed his way back toward the top ten.
Denny Hamlin prayed for a caution when he was informed by crew chief Mike Ford that the #11 Toyota was 12 laps short on fuel with the last 30 laps ticking away. Carl Edwards, with nothing to lose, pulled away by 1.5 seconds on second place Hamlin. Jimmie Johnson was too far behind Hamlin and too far ahead of Harvick to conserve fuel in his Chevy.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship looked like it was coming down to a fuel mileage race with 15 laps left in the Kobalt Tools 500. Hamlin held second, 2.5 seconds behind leader Carl Edwards, Johnson held on to sixth, while Harvick was stalled in 12th position.
Hamlin was forced to pit with 14 laps left. His crew got him back out in 7 seconds, but he was a lap down to the leader in 19th. The chase points gap closed to just 47 between first second and third. Montoya continued his way to the front taking second place. Johnson stayed out hoping for a caution, but taking a chance at throwing away any opportunity for a fifth championship.
With two laps to go, Johnson was in 6th, Harvick in 7th, and Hamlin in 15th.
When the checkered flag fell, Edwards took the win as a hard charging Montoya ran out of fuel and dropped to 16th. Jimmie Johnson held on to sixth as Harvick finished in 7th. Hamlin came across the line in 12th position.
The Nascar Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship was turned upside down. Jimmie Johnson closed in to within fifteen points of leader Denny Hamlin, and in an odd swing of luck Kevin Harvick’s lug nut issue, that allowed him to come in and top off on fuel, kept him in third place only 46 points from first place.
It’s gonna be a barn burner at the finale in Homestead for the Nascar Sprint Cup Championship!