Kasey Kahne claimed his first victory of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season while Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart spent the afternoon in such close proximity at Phoenix International Raceway that they maintained the same three-point margin of their thrilling battle in the tightest Chase in history.
Edwards finished second to Kahne and leads by a trio of points over Stewart, who passed Jeff Burton for third place on the next to last lap. Stewart saved a point for himself by leading the most laps this afternoon.
During post-race interviews, the two drivers sat side-by-side, in similar proximity to their racing fashion during the day. They joked about settling the championship at a dirt track if they finish tied at Homestead-Miami next week in the season's finale.
"He's keeping me honest, and I'm keeping him honest," said Stewart. "A lot can happen in 400 miles next week," he added.
Proud of his team's performance, Edwards also agreed the two teams have been terrific competitors: "It's great to be racing Tony and their team at their best."
Edwards also complimented PIR's new racing surface and configuration, saying, "I think once the track sits for awhile, and we come back for the Subway Fresh Fit 500™ (in March) and also a year from now, it will be awesome. I'm a convert."
Things started quickly in the Kobalt Tools 500 as the "Ragan and Regan Wreck" came on lap 2: David Ragan got badly loose off turn 3 and collected Regan Smith for the race's first caution. But that was only a prelude to the two top drivers in the Chase posting their car numbers at the top of the scoring pylon. Stewart, who started eighth, passed pole sitter Matt Kenseth for the lead on lap 37, and Edwards took second from Kenseth on lap 50. But A.J. Allmendinger and Kenseth would have more to say about second place as each owned it during the first half of the race behind a dominating Stewart. Meanwhile, Edwards bided his time in the top five.
Running in fifth place, Kenseth slowed badly on laps 173-174 and was tagged from behind by Brian Vickers, the same driver who damaged the chances of the no. 17 Crown Royal Ford recently at Martinsville. Kenseth had to retire his car to the garage for repairs and limped to 34th to end his hopes for the Sprint Cup title. In fact all contenders were eliminated except for Edwards and Stewart. That included Jimmie Johnson, who came home in 14th place; it spelled the end to his team's remarkable five straight championships since 2006.
Stewart and Edwards were left to duke it out in the top two positions with few threats except from Allmendinger and Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch's opportunity to win went awry when his engine went sour while he ran in third place on lap 188. Kurt Busch showed the way after a lap 224 restart but lost his engine on the last pit stop almost 60 laps later.
All teams pitted for the last time under green between laps 273 and 298. And it was Kahne who came away with the lead, one he would keep. Stewart had faded slightly, loose on entry to the turns over the closing laps. But, he got around Burton in the late going to save the narrow margin in the Chase.
So, while Kahne celebrated in Gatorade Victory Lane, others were anxious to go to south Florida to settle the championship next week.