Most of the way through Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR race at Phoenix it looked like Denny Hamlin was going to put himself in an almost unbeatable position to win this year’s Sprint Cup. Hamlin led the majority of the race, but near the end he had to stop for a splash of fuel and fell to 12th place. Hamlin’s problem enabled Carl Edwards to score his first win in more than two years. Edwards, Hamlin’s primary rival in Phoenix, was able to pussyfoot through the closing laps to score his second victory of the weekend, having also won Saturday’s second-division Nationwide race.
The race in Arizona was the penultimate round in this year’s Sprint Cup, which Hamlin hoped to have under control going to next weekend’s final at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. So he was bitterly disappointed to have to make a late stop. Championship rivals Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick finished fifth and sixth in Phoenix, and the former now leads the series by 15 points from Hamlin, with Harvick another 31 behind.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said Hamlin. “We were looking good going into next week. Now we’ve got to just outrace them. We had a good car today and it didn’t work out strategy-wise. It’s frustrating, but we had a car that could win and I haven’t had that here in a long time. We’re just going to go there next week and try to win the race.”
Defending champion Johnson enjoyed a good race, but nothing more. In the closing laps he found himself stretching his final load of fuel as he cruised home fifth. “I did anything I could to stay out of the throttle,” he said. “I had to give up a couple of positions at the end, but we ran well all day and our pitstops were phenomenal and kept us out of trouble. I’m pumped. We have one heck of a points race going to Miami. I’m so happy to put pressure on that No 11 team [Hamlin]. We’re ready to race them next week.”
Harvick stayed in the championship battle despite having to make an extra mid-race stop for a missing wheel nut. He fell to 19th at one point but came back to finish right behind Johnson. “We dodged a bullet for sure, and we’ve still got a chance next week,” said Harvick. “So that’s all you can ask for. Our car will be fast next week. We’ll be there racing to win.”
Juan Pablo Montoya was running second behind Edwards in the closing laps, but his bad luck continued. JPM ran out of gas on the last lap and coasted home 16th.
So Hamlin and Harvick will be racing to win their first Sprint Cup next Sunday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, while Johnson goes for an unprecedented fifth title in a row. It’s a good way to finish the season.