AVONDALE, Ariz. -- A duel in the desert at Phoenix International Raceway set up a dramatic Chase finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week. The battle lines have been defined, and while neither Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart won the Kobalt Tools 500, Edwards clung to a slim 3-point advantage over Stewart with one race left.
Nearly lost in the championship fight was
But the focus is on Edwards and Stewart -- the only two drivers left in contention for the title ...
But one thing is certain -- two of NASCAR's most determined drivers are essentially in a winner-take-all scenario at Homestead.
If Edwards and Stewart finish tied in points, Stewart would win the Cup title based the tiebreaker of most race victories. Stewart has four wins -- all coming in the Chase -- while Edwards has one.
At Homestead, Stewart is a two-time winner, but his victories in 1999 and 2000 came before the track was reconfigured to its current 1.5-mile length and 18-20-degree banking in the turns. Edwards has won at Homestead in two of his previous three attempts, including last year's victory. Team owner Jack Roush's cars have won seven of the 12 Cup races contested at Homestead, so that gives Edwards an advantage.
"It's the best points battle I have been a part of at this level," Edwards said. "It is fun for me. I still don't understand why we are both running so good. It seems like subconsciously we are both able to dig down, and our teams are able to give us what we need, and everyone is performing at a real high level. It has been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us.
"It is neat to go to Homestead and race it out. I am sure these guys are going to be good down there. They are fast at the mile-and-a-half tracks. I love that place. I am 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 race with them and compete. It was a good hard fought day. I am really pumped for Homestead; I think it is going to be a good time."
Stewart led 160 of 312 laps -- the most of any driver. But after making air pressure adjustments to his race car to help improve its handling, the last change didn't work and his Chevrolet was off just enough that he couldn't get back to the front. His team hoped to adjust the car on the final pit stop if another yellow flag waved to slow the field. But the final 88 laps of the race were run without caution, so Stewart had to deal with the car as it was.
With 21 laps to go, Edwards led and made his final stop to put Stewart in the lead. But three laps later Stewart made his final pit to put Brad Keselowski in the lead. That lasted five laps, as Keselowski pitted to pave the way for Kahne the final 14 laps.
So each Chase driver stayed in the same points position as they entered the race, creating a tremendous finale.
"It is kind of fun to be in this scenario where you got guys that are three points apart," Stewart said. "Last week we were running first and second in the race. Today we ran first and second. It does make it fun. We both have to earn what we get.
"No matter how it ends up next weekend, it's not going to have been given to you. We're going to have to definitely earn it and fight for it, for sure."
Even Kahne, who isn't part of the Chase, can't wait to see how it turns out.
"It's been fun to watch from my standpoint," Kahne said. "I think the last couple weeks I started right behind them. They started the two spots in front of me. I raced with them, right behind them. To be able to beat them today feels pretty good. They've put on a great show. Carl has been really consistent and really fast all season long. Tony's stepped up like no other in the Chase. It's pretty impressive what those two guys have done. It's going to be the same way at Homestead. I feel like it's going to go right to the end of that race before we know who is going to be the champion."
To make matters worse, NASCAR officials penalized Busch for speeding off pit road, and he had to serve a penalty.
"What the (bleep) was that?" Busch screamed into the radio. "No (bleeping) tachometer. You ran me out of (bleeping) gas. We have a fuel pickup issue like we did earlier this year. We can never learn from our mistakes. Just brilliant.
"This is why we're going to finish 11th in points. Unreal."
Busch finished 22nd.
"You know how much fuel this thing can pick up?" Busch asked crew chief Steve Addington over the radio on the cool down lap.
"I'll talk to you when we get in here," Addington responded.
"I'd like to have a meeting with you and whoever has the calculator and whoever sits up there next to Roger (Penske, team owner) on the pit box afterwards if you don't mind."
Busch left the team's transporter while Addington and Penske Racing director of competition Travis Geisler went into Penske's motorhome to meet after the race and discuss what happened.
"What an unbelievable turn of events," Busch said. "We worked our butts off all race trying to get track position and just couldn't cash our ticket in late in the race. We knew that track position and two-tire strategy were going to be keys, and it almost paid off for us. Steve (Addington) made the great call for two left sides under caution around Lap 220. That got us out front, but we may not have packed the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge full of fuel. We're not exactly sure, but it certainly appears that way.
"I thought for sure that once we got out in clean air after we took the lead that we had a great shot at the win. I knew that we had one more pit stop to make, and with track position, I loved our chance to win the race. Steve radioed to pit just as I was coming down the backstretch and within a second or two, I ran out of gas. Just incredible. I made it to the pit box, and when we tried to restart the engine, the car wouldn't fire right away. It cost us a lot of time. Worst part is that I had no tachometer, got caught speeding on pit road and had to do a wave through. We went from first to 26th, all in just making a green-flag pit stop. It was just an incredible turn of events. I think we had the car to be in victory lane."
Busch was forced to started last in the 43-car field because his Joe Gibbs Racing team had to change engines after Friday's practice session.
But once the green flag fell Busch was able to easily drive through the field and was up to third before engine trouble slowed his Toyota. It would prove to be terminal, and Busch pulled his car into the garage on Lap 194, finishing 36th.
"It was just a catastrophic failure," Busch said. "It's really unfortunate, too. It's just devastating. To go through turmoil like this all you can do is group together and pull through it and try to persevere and move on. We have one more race, one more opportunity next week to win a race before the year is out to end on a high note."
Busch's actions this season have gotten him in trouble, but from seeing how he carried himself throughout the weekend it was obvious that NASCAR's message about his behavior was received. His performance on the track proved that he is one of the best behind the wheel, but the engine failure doomed him.
The team is attempting to find a buyer, but no deal has been finalized. Kahne will move over to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the ride that is being vacated by Mark Martin, who moves over to a part-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing.
"Well, we're lucky that everybody kept working hard and has stayed after it, preparing great race cars," Kahne said. "We're bringing awesome cars to the track. It's tough to hear you say it's shutting down in eight days. Over the last three months, you have one of the top� five cars in NASCAR shutting down, and that's crazy."
Team manager Kenny Francis emphasized it.
"That's my biggest win ever," he said.
"I'm definitely disappointed that we won't be able to go to Homestead and race for our sixth, but that's motor sports," Johnson said. "It's a very tough business. What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular.
"Yes, the streak is gone but we've still got a shot at a top-five in points and that would be a big year still."
Johnson was the first driver to win the championship more than three years in a row. By extending it to five straight he raised the bar to an unreachable height -- the likes of which won't be equaled any time soon, if ever.