Carl Edwards! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Carl Edwards, almost exactly two years to the day since his last NASCAR tour win, finally got to do another victorious backflip, and stormed into the grandstands to celebrate his first Sprint Cup win with new crew chief Jimmy Fennig Sunday afternoon in the Phoenix 500K.
It was a crash-filled race, with right-front tires popping too regularly, possibly from excessive brake heat, a not infrequent issue at this flat one-mile track on the west side of the U.S.' 12th biggest metropolitan area.
"Jimmy Fennig is the man. His pit crew won this race for us," Edwards said, almost beside himself. "We're back."
Edwards took the lead on a late round of pit stops under yellow at Phoenix International Raceway and managed to stretch his fuel the final 80 miles or so. A last yellow for Ken Schrader's crash set up a green-white-checkered two-lap overtime sprint.
Edwards on the inside, Jimmie Johnson on the outside, and Edwards got a great start, with help from Brad Keselowski.
Edwards' last Sprint Cup win was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway March 6, 2011. That was the season that Edwards dominated, with consistency if not wins....until Tony Stewart's playoff charge. Edwards and Stewart finished that season tied in points, with Stewart getting the title because of more wins.
Last season, in contrast, was all but a disaster for Edwards, who never really got on track.
"I try to stay positive...but I was about to get mad," Edwards said, at the questions about his long losing streak.
Now he goes to Las Vegas for next weekend's 400-miler back on his game....and maybe with those five Daytona crashes buried deep in memory.
Unlike the season opener, this race was filled with action...mostly with unpredictability, with this new 2013 stocker and its many chassis and aerodynamic changes.
Goodyear came with a different tire, after a tire test last fall. Drivers have complained about tires here since the 2011 repave. However again drivers were griping. And what Goodyear engineers do in response could be interesting, since this track plays host to the next to last race of the season, thus a key race in the championship chase.
Juan Pablo Montoya (42) had his moments (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"The tire is so hard, you could really run a whole race on the left sides," third-place surprise Denny Hamlin said. "We really didn't have much today. Just scrambled at the end. Hopefully when we get to some tracks with tire wear it will be different."
Hamlin provided some late-race thrills with his last-lap pass on the apron from fourth to second, catching Johnson and Brad Keselowski unawares. Johnson managed to squeeze Hamlin at the line, by barely a foot, to take second.
"We ran out crossing the start-finish line," Keselowski said. "If we couldn't win, I'm glad to see another Ford win."
Keselowski is the newest addition to NASCAR's Team Ford, and he literally pushed is new teammate across the final starting line, to help Edwards beat Johnson to the first turn.
One of the day's big stories was Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once was a power here, but lately he hasn't done that well. But Sunday Earnhardt came on strong in the second half of the three-hour race.
Flip! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski, who had a great run at Daytona too, was again a late-race bloomer.
"I gave Carl a good push into turn one," Keselowski said of his end-game. "I wish I would have used the run to try and make a pass, but I don't think I could have pulled it off without wrecking Carl.
"And then I was running side-by-side with Jimmie and Denny..."
Edwards looked home-free, until the Schrader crash: "I thought for the last few laps it was going to be easy...and then they had that caution.
"It was an awesome restart. Brad pushed me, and that meant a lot. I've got to thank Brad."
However Johnson said Edwards played with the restarting line: "I felt Carl didn't follow the restart protocol and was slower than the pace car on his last two restarts. It gives the leader a huge advantage.
"You're supposed to wait until you get between the two (red) lines (on the outside wall), and take off.
"You're supposed to maintain the speed of the pace car. So I maintained the speed of the pace car... and Carl is dropping back.
"At some point you can't see the guy to know when he's going to accelerate. If he can get you looking, and get out of your sight and punch it, you never have a chance to recover."
A big issue, of course, was the raceability of the new 2013s. And the verdict was not that impressive...not for a car that has supposedly been some three years in development.
Keselowski's view of the new car, Round Two?
Clean air, he says, "is probably more important than ever."
That is not good.
On the plus side, Keselowski says "these cars probably drive easier than any car I've ever driven in my life, by themselves...and probably the hardest to drive of any car I've ever driven in traffic."
Tweaking the 2013s was clearly needed after the Daytona 500. Now?
Pit road problems.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Another issue here: tires
David Regan was one of the victims, when Danica Patrick's car bounced off the wall right into him after she blew a right front: "A lot of people were having tire issues," Regan said. "I saw her blew the tire I never thought she'd come across the track that fast."
Patrick confirmed she blew a right-front. "No real warning.
"I wasn't that tight either. I was sliding a little bit. Most of the day I was chasing the rear.
"It was a little unexpected. I took a hard hit to the right, and then on the left."
Hamlin wasn't happy. And this is one of his better tracks.
"We just struggled," Hamlin griped. "Definitely have some work to do.
"I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation-five cars. (That's the ill-fated COT.) This is more like what the generation-five was at the beginning.
"You just run single-file, and you cannot get around the guy in front of you.
"You would have placed me 20th with 30 to go, and I would have stayed there, I wouldn't have moved up.
"Track position is everything."
Right-front tire problems sidelined Danica Patrick. And she wasn't alone (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Edwards had to play with the restart, perhaps, Hamlin figured because "I was thinking the whole time it was actually Jimmie's race to win.
"Usually the guy who can get to the outside into turn one can typically be the guy in the catbird seat off turn two."
Remember Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon the last time in Phoenix?
Neither was a player this time.
Bowyer: "Unfortunately the only thing I saw was a problem all day was the tires. A lot of the guys are having tire issues."
Matt Kenseth again had a strong car. He liked the downforce. But he said "The goal is always to get them easier to pass
"I'm sure NASCAR is going to adjust and try to make it a little bit easier for the rear cars to catch somebody.
"You couldn't really get close to anybody, and that made it tough to pass."
Johnson, pointing out that with all the recent track repaves the asphalt composition has become an issue, said speed might be something for NASCAR to consider: "The faster we go, the narrower track, and the harder it is to pass.
"Speeds will be up (with the new cars), especially when we get to the 1-1/2-miles.
"I think we need to leave the cars alone for a good 10 or 20 years. Let the teams be."
Once again, not a good day for Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)