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Carl Edwards snaps a long winless streak by winning Sunday's Phoenix 500....but in the championship chase -- wow!

 Carl Edwards throws himself into the grandstands to celebrate with the fans after winning Phoenix (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

Carl Edwards, so jubilant in victory, his first in nearly two years, literally threw himself into the grandstand crowd Sunday afternoon, after pulling off a rather stunning fuel mileage victory on a day when championship tensions were at fever pitch – before and certainly after the Phoenix 500-K.
   "It's been a long drought....it's been really hard to keep our confidence up -- and this is what we needed," Edwards said of the win, the 17th of his career.
   And this win followed Saturday's Nationwide win, making it a rare sweep. And Edwards seemed almost stunned afterwards: "It's unreal.
   "It still doesn't feel like this really happened.  We needed this win....It's just unreal..."
   Denny Hamlin had by far the dominant car throughout Sunday's 312-miler. But the final stretch of long green turned the next-to-last-race of the season – a critical race in the championship chase – turned it into fuel mileage finish...and Hamlin needed one extra stop, which cost him the victory.
   Hamlin goes to the Homestead finale next weekend still with the Sprint Cup lead, but only 15 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and only 46 points ahead of Kevin Harvick.


     Denny Hamlin had the best car, drove his tail off, but didn't have enough gas at the end, and gave up ground to both Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick in their Sprint Cup championship chase. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And at one point late in the day Hamlin was looking at taking a 60-plus point lead over Johnson to Florida, and Harvick, after a pit stop mistake, was looking at falling some 130 points down to Hamlin.
   It was the fuel mileage game that turned the race around.
   Edwards' crew chief, Bob Osborne, who made the gutsy call to ignore the computers that said they didn't have enough gas to finish, called his winning driver 'Golden foot,' for pulling it off.
    However Hamlin was devastated at the surprising turn of events
   "It's pretty disappointing," an almost distraught Hamlin said after finishing 12th, because of a pit stop for gas with only 14 miles to go at this one-mile track.  That stop dropped Hamlin to 19th on the track.
   "We were in a good position there to be looking good going into next week," Hamlin said. "Now we've just got to outrun them at Homestead....and I'm thinking it's going to take a win."
   At one point Hamlin was so in command, not only the race but in his personal battles with Johnson and Harvick, that he was positioned to go to Homestead needing only a top-10 finish to clinch his first title.
   Now, the championship is wide open.
   Hence Hamlin's long face:  "We had a good car today, things just didn't work out strategy-wise.
   "We've had the best fuel mileage of everyone every single week. I don't know if we were trying to be smart and conservative or if we were really short. We'll have to figure that out.
   "I was sitting pretty.
   "I didn't know anyone was going to try and stretch it."
   Johnson, who surprised many here by stretching his fuel 89 miles down the stretch, wound up the top-finisher of the three title contenders, with a fifth:
   "I did everything I could to save gas," Johnson said. "And we got it done.
   "I'm so happy to be putting pressure on Denny's team. I hope the pressure works on his mind and his crew's mind all week."

    While Hamlin was clearly depressed, Harvick was almost jubilant after pulling off a sixth, salvaging the day after a loose lug nut on a late stop dropped him to the rear of the lead lap pack, 19th, because of that extra pit stop. However that extra stop actually helped Harvick, with the extra fuel to make it the distance.
   Harvick: "We're just lucky, to be honest with you.
   "I never said anything to the guys on pit road after that (incident).
   "I was pretty down. I thought 'there it went.'
   "But Richard (Childress, the team owner) and Gil (Martin, his crew chief) both said 'Stay with it..you can go the distance.'
   "I've got to thank Richard and Gil for keeping me pumped up.
   "We dodged one, for sure. And we've got a chance next week."

    Edwards started from the pole and dueled with Kurt Busch early. But then the track changed, and so did the tone of the race, to Hamlin.
    "When the race started, I felt we had the best car...and then here comes Denny and Kyle Busch and Jimmie," Edwards said.
    "Then Bob made really good adjustments, and then the track came to us a little bit.
    "The thing that really saved us was our pit stall.  That's something we've talked about. We understand that we have to qualify better, and that first pit stall is what kept us up there, with that track position."

  Kevin Harvick: one moment staring at the end of his championship hopes...the next, fired up and only 46 down going into the Homestead finale (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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