Carl Edwards might have been on pole position, but everyone knew that the man to beat at Phoenix in the second round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series was Kyle Busch, who had already claimed wins in both the Truck and Nationwide events that weekend and now had his sights on a clean sweep.
Kyle rapidly moved into the lead of the race on lap 6 and held it to the first caution of the day on lap 20 for debris. Several drivers opted to pit but others chose to stay out, aware that a scheduled 'competition caution' was due on lap 40; in fact, that turned out to be sooner than expected after Robby Gordon spun on lap 34 and NASCAR decided that would do as the competition yellow after all.
That left Carl Edwards in the lead ahead of Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch; Kyle, meanwhile, was making a bit of a dog's dinner of the early stages of the race and fell back through the field after a touch from Kevin Harvick sent him up the banking and scraping along the wall on lap 39, although it did not appear to do any lasting damage.
It was not a good day for the younger stars, with Joey Logano off the pace thanks to a valve spring or rocker arm gone bad on the #20 that the team could do nothing about; and on lap 50, Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne got a slight connect with Travis Kvapil that caused him to spin, sending him rear-first into the wall and causing extensive damage to the back of the #21.
Kurt Busch stayed out during the ensuing pit stops and duly inherited the lead, while Carl Edwards took two tyres and emerged in the midfield in 15th, soon finding himself in a cluster of cars that included Kyle Busch still in recover mode from his earlier brush. As Edwards passed on the inside, Busch suddenly moved down the track and side-slammed the #99 in what spectators immediately took to be a deliberate move: Edwards was sent on to the infield grass and then slide up the race track, trapping Jeff Gordon against the wall at slow speed in the process while behind other cars had to make evasive action - resulting in Kevin Harvick sliding through an impressive amount of tyre smoke but fortunately avoiding any significant damage.
It looked set to trigger off a new NASCAR feud between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards: "My first impression was that Kyle was just frustrated that Ryan [Newman] got by me and he turned down [on me on purpose]," Edwards said later. "But I looked at that and it looked like he might have just gotten loose."
Edwards' second impression proved correct and Kyle - unusually - was immediately apologetic toward Edwards after the race. "The car got out from underneath me right around the backstretch and I made a mistake and got into Carl Edwards there and completely destroyed his day," Busch said. "I made a mistake today. I've admitted that, I don't know how many times."
Any chance that this was going to be the big event of the afternoon was quickly dashed at the restart, which saw Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth make contact that resulted in Vickers blowing a tyre out of turn 2 and spinning round against the wall: with the field still closed up from the restart, there was mayhem behind as cars dived for cover and made a serious hash of it, tearing up several cars including those of Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton. In all, at least 14 cars were involved in some sort of collision during the next few seconds: others caught up included Clint Bowyer, Robby Gordon, Andy Lally, David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil.
"We used to not start double-file," Vickers pointed out, suggesting that starting side-by-side on a tight one mile oval like Phoenix was going to result in problems. "I think they make it exciting for the fans. But, you know, yeah, you're going to create other situations because of it."
Jeff Burton, whose #31 was seriously torn up, was annoyed with drivers racing so hard to early in proceedings. "I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. We all race. Certainly if people are wrecking, it's too aggressive, there's no doubt about that," he said. "I can't control other people; I can only control us ... I thought we had a car that could win this race and we're sitting here in the garage. It's real disappointing."
After a red flag period to allow NASCAR to clean up the track, racing was back on, with still more than three quarters of the race length to go. The man with the speed now was Jeff Gordon, who took to the front and pulled out a good lead, but some debris on the front grille caused him to fall away and Tony Stewart led for a while, he and Gordon eventually pulling away from the rest of the pack during a decent period of green flag racing at last.
A sixth caution on lap 127 resulted from a heavy smash into the wall for David Ragan as the result of a blown tyre, which saw the car briefly catch fire. When racing resumed, Gordon and Stewart once again led ahead of Jimmie Johnson and the Busch Boys. The green lasted through the next round of pit stops, which cost Stewart three positions and left him complaining that the adjustments had made the car go loose, meaning that he was one of the happier people on track to see a caution shortly afterwards on lap 218 for the final expiry of Joey Logano's struggling engine.
The restart saw Jeff Gordon ahead of Kyle Busch with Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart behind them, and Jimmie Johnson back in ninth after a particularly sluggish pit stop - shades of last year's pit road problems for the #48, it seems, despite the close-season reshuffle at Hendrick Motorsports.
At least such things didn't appear to be affecting his team mate Jeff Gordon ... Except on the very next green flag pit stop on lap 283, Gordon had a poor stop and lost the lead to Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch and the critical moment in the race. Hostilities were postponed for the eighth yellow of the afternoon for Andy Yally going into the wall, and then at the restart Kyle Busch saw his opportunity and blasted past Smoke for the lead - Gordon going with him, but now a distance behind the #18 and faced with the prospect of having to overtake Kyle on track at some point in the remaining 20 laps, a tall order at the best of times.
Yet there was no question that the #24 was the better, faster car and slowly Gordon reeled in Busch and sat on his bumper, finally administering the lightest of taps on the rear of the #18 coming out of turn 4 on lap 303 that forced Busch to run wide out onto the front-straight and gave Gordon a glimpse of daylight ahead. Gordon struggled to hold his line and make the pass, sliding up the track which ironically gave Kyle more trouble than it did Jeff - and as a result, Gordon was back in front and running for the chequered flag.
"I just beat Kyle Busch!" yelled Gordon after the finish, "Pinch me, man. Pinch me!" He was right to be ecstatic. Not only was he the only driver to beat Kyle all weekend, it had brought to an end a 66-race winless streak that last lasted for almost two years to notch up his 83rd career victory - tying the legendary Cale Yarborough in fifth in the all-time race winners rankings.
"God, it feels so amazing," he said in victory lane. "I can't tell you how amazing this feels." He even gave a name check to Twitter, saying: "I've been tweeting lately for the first time and all of the stuff that people have been saying, the motivation has been unbelievably inspiring."
Gordon's win spearheaded an extremely impressive day for his team and even for the Stewart-Haas team with which Hendrick have a technical partnership, all six cars finishing 13th or better at Phoenix. "As a group we came here and started today with our tail between our legs [after a poor Daytona 500 showing] and it's nice to finish up the day with one in victory lane and one in third," said Jimmie Johnson, concluding that it was "a good day for HMS."
Kyle's bid for a clean sweep might have been frustrated - "There's always got to be the one car out there to ruin the whole weekend," Busch laughed, adding that today "it was the #24" - but he will be happy that the win puts him at the top of the Sprint Cup points standings
, 3pts ahead of his brother.Race results
1. #24 Jeff Gordon
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (48/2 pts)
2. #18 Kyle Busch
Toyota 312 laps Running (43/1 pts)
3. #48 Jimmie Johnson
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (42/1 pts)
4. #29 Kevin Harvick
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (41/1 pts)
5. #39 Ryan Newman
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (40/1 pts)
6. #4 Kasey Kahne
Toyota 312 laps Running (38/0 pts)
7. #14 Tony Stewart
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (38/1 pts)
8. #22 Kurt Busch
Dodge 312 laps Running (37/1 pts)
9. #43 A.J. Allmendinger
Ford 312 laps Running (35/0 pts)
10. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (34/0 pts)
11. #11 Denny Hamlin
Toyota 312 laps Running (34/1 pts)
12. #17 Matt Kenseth
Ford 312 laps Running (33/1 pts)
13. #5 Mark Martin
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (31/0 pts)
14. #56 Martin Truex Jr.
Toyota 312 laps Running (30/0 pts)
15. #2 Brad Keselowski
Dodge 312 laps Running (29/0 pts)
16. #9 Marcos Ambrose
Ford 312 laps Running (28/0 pts)
17. #27 Paul Menard
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (27/0 pts)
18. #13 Casey Mears
Toyota 312 laps Running (26/0 pts)
19. #42 Juan Montoya
Chevrolet 312 laps Running (25/0 pts)
20. #16 Greg Biffle
Ford 312 laps Running (24/0 pts)
21. #47 Bobby Labonte
Toyota 310 laps Running (23/0 pts)
22. #34 David Gilliland
Ford 310 laps Running (22/0 pts)
23. #9 Bill Elliott
Chevrolet 309 laps Running (21/0 pts)
24. #32 Mike Skinner
Ford 308 laps Running (0pts)
25. #37 Tony Raines
Ford 306 laps Running (19/0 pts)
26. #31 Jeff Burton
Chevrolet 276 laps Running (18/0 pts)
27. #33 Clint Bowyer
Chevrolet 260 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #99 Carl Edwards
Ford 252 laps Running (17/1 pts)
29. #0 David Reutimann
Toyota 246 laps Running (15/0 pts)
30. #83 Brian Vickers
Toyota 238 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #71 Andy Lally *
Chevrolet 237 laps Running (14/1 pts)
32. #7 Robby Gordon
Dodge 236 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #20 Joey Logano
Toyota 213 laps In Pit (11/0 pts)
34. #78 Regan Smith
Chevrolet 213 laps Running (10/0 pts)
35. #1 Jamie McMurray
Chevrolet 126 laps In Pit (9/0 pts)
36. #6 David Ragan
Ford 125 laps In Pit (8/0 pts)
37. #46 J.J. Yeley
Chevrolet 72 laps Out of Race (7/0 pts)
38. #60 Landon Cassill
Toyota 68 laps In Pit (0pts)
39. #38 Travis Kvapil
Ford 66 laps Running (0pts)
40. #21 Trevor Bayne
Ford 49 laps Running (0pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell
Toyota 43 laps In Pit (4/1 pts)
42. #36 Dave Blaney
Chevrolet 27 laps Out of Race (2/0 pts)
43. #87 Joe Nemechek
Toyota 22 laps Out of Race (0pts)