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Kasey Kahne wins Phoenix, and Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart battle to a draw

  Tony Stewart leading Carl Edwards in Sunday's Phoenix 500, on a day that turned out beautiful, after early morning rain (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   In the end, after all the pre-race hype, the new asphalt here was no major problem, the dogleg backstretch didn't bedevil, and Round Nine of the Carl Edwards-Tony Stewart NASCAR championship dual was essentially a wash – Kasey Kahne won the Phoenix 500, Edwards finished second, and Stewart third, and Edwards remains atop the Sprint Cup standings by just three points heading to Homestead, Fla., for the season finale.

   "This is going to be a battle at Homestead," Edwards said after his late charge here at repaved and redesigned Phoenix International Raceway.
   Edwards has won two of the last three Cup races at Homestead, but Stewart's mid-sized track program has been solid this fall.
   "That place is magical for us," Edwards says of the Florida track.
   Stewart led the most laps Sunday, worth one bonus point, and dominated most of the race.
   "We're still where we need to be, and we almost did everything we needed to do," Stewart said. "We're keeping him honest.
   "We've got two wins a third in the last three races. We're going to make him sweat it out."
   For Kahne, the win was somewhat bittersweet, because the team he's driving for is shutting its doors in eight days, at the end of the season. Kahne himself and crew chief Kenny Francis are moving to Rick Hendrick's Chevy team next season.
   There is speculation that the Kahne-Francis Red Bull Toyota team may simply change ownership for 2012, but neither Francis nor Kahne had any comment on that.



Winner Kasey Kahne (Red Bull) at the line, just ahead of runnerup Carl Edwards (Aflac) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The three-point spread is the third-closest ever in NASCAR history at the point in the season, and it's essentially the difference of three finishing positions….or winning and finishing second. Only the 1979 and 1990 title battles (converted points) were closer, Richard Petty beating Darrell Waltrip in 1979 and Dale Earnhardt beating Mark Martin in 1990.
   "He's keeping me honest, and I'm keeping him honest," Stewart said. "Two weeks in a row we've led the most laps. We've got to keep putting the pressure on him.
   "As far as I'm concerned this is a dead-heat right now. We've both got momentum. And our 1-1/2-mile program has really improved.
   "I wish we could run Homestead tomorrow. I'm ready.
   "I'm not worried about anything but getting four more points on Carl.
   "No matter how it ends up next week, we've both had to work for it."
   After the race both Edwards and Stewart were laughing with each other and joshing.
   Any place other than Homestead that Edwards might like to be racing the last race for the championship?
   "Well, I know a few dirt tracks," Edwards said.
   To which Stewart quickly replied "I've got a dirt track up at Eldora, if you want to do it there. And I've got another one in Kentucky. And one in Illinois."
   The two laughed.

   No head games? What, no head games going into the final race?
   These two guys were pretty darned loose about the whole deal.
   Stewart did take a jab at ESPN for what he said was trying to inject too much drama into this dual, calling it 'the high drama network.'
   But then one year ago here Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin wouldn't come into the same room after the race…a race Hamlin had dominated but lost, and in losing essentially lost momentum in the championship chase. There was clear angst then.
   However the moments after this race, number 35 of the 36, were much more lighthearted and upbeat.
   "It's an awesome championship battle," Stewart said.
   "It's neat to me, that Tony and the guys have been winning races….if we're able to beat these guys for the championship, that will mean a lot to me," Edwards said.
   "This is the best chase we've ever had. If they beat us, they're beating us at our best.
   "I still don't know why we're both running at this level. It's neat that we're both able to keep running at this level.
   "There would be nothing better than for the title to come down to us running side by side for the win."

    The track was, after the first 50 or 60 miles of rubber laid down (after early morning rain), in very raceable shape, with drivers at times going three-wide, and even making a dare for a four-wide.
    And the backstretch, with its dipsy-doodle banking in the middle, was surprisingly not much of a factor either.
   Stewart credited the work of the drivers who spent several days just running laps on soft tires to get the new asphalt in better shape.
   "A bunch of the credit here has to go to Randy Lajoie and the guys who came and ran the 'school' cars," Stewart said. "If not for them, we wouldn't have had a two-groove track. I still wouldn't have changed the shape of the track the way they did, but you did have the flexibility to move up or down."
   In fact Stewart was able to make the outside lane work well even on restarts, quite a surprise.
   "Our car was a little loose on restarts…but we were actually better on the outside," Stewart said.
   Edwards agreed with Stewart: "Brian Sperber (track president) deserves credit for recognizing the issues we were facing.
  "It was a lot better than I thought it would be. It started to remind me of the old Phoenix.
   "I'm a convert; I was ready to put a tombstone on the place."


     A sellout crowd at Phoenix International Raceway, estimated by NASCAR at 85,000, on a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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