"It feels so good. Been a long time coming," said Kasey Kahne after finding victory lane for the first time with Red Bull Racing - and most likely the last, as the team is being wound up at the end of the season as the drinks company pulls its financial support. But as leaving presents go, a parting gift of victory at Phoenix is as good as it gets for any driver and team.
"These guys have done an unbelievable job," said Kahne, taking the opportunity to talk up the work of the Red Bull mechanics one last time. "It feels really good to get Red Bull in victory lane - I just wanted to win for them really bad."
Going into the race, drivers were concerned about the new paving and configuration at Phoenix International Raceway that suggested that moving outside of a single rubbered-in groove down low would be all-but impossible, which would appear make overtaking a distant dream. It didn't help that it had been raining overnight and into the morning, washing away what little grip the track had built up over the preceding days of practice and qualifying - not that the weather had discouraged a sell-out crowd of 85,000 for the last-race-but-one of the season.
And the start didn't bode well. After veteran race driver Adrian Fernandez waved the green flag to get proceedings under way, there was an immediate yellow when David Ragan and Regan Smith tangled and hit the wall. The second restart was little better with Geoffrey Bodine spinning on the frontstretch. It looked like it was going to be a very long afternoon indeed for all concerned.
Fortunately the initial signs were misleading, and the next green flag stint lasted all the way to the scheduled competition caution (planned because of the rain) on lap 40. Polesitter Matt Kenseth had led for almost all of that period.
But Tony Stewart made his intentions clear with aggressive moves at the restarts and was on a mission to get to the front as soon as possible. He made it on lap 35, and while Kenseth beat him off pit road after the competition caution pit stops to take the lead again, Stewart was quickly back in front again and then led for more than a hundred laps with only a brief break for pit stops under the fourth caution of the day (and the second caused by a Bodine spin) on lap 94.
Carl Edwards was less assertive in the early stages, and was fretting with the car's handling which was proving too tight for comfort in turns 3 and 4. But the #99 team has been in this position before, and their trademark strength has been the slow, steady incremental changes dialled in by crew chief Bob Osborne as the race progresses, and Phoenix was to prove no different. He settled into third place for much of Stewart's century up front and bided his time, using it to study what his rival was up to.
"That is exactly what I was doing, just hanging out back there trying to keep his blood pressure up!" he said later. "I was watching what Tony was doing and searching around and doing what I could."
It proved a wise strategy. After the next caution on lap 159 (caused by - guess who? - yes, Geoff Bodine spinning once more) Edwards took advantage of Matt Kenseth going wide and slotted into the lead in his own right for the first time in the afternoon, which he kept through the sixth caution and restart of the day caused when Cole Whitt got helped into a spin in his Cup series début by contact with Martin Truex Jr.
Meanwhile Kenseth's afternoon was about to go from bad to worse: on lap 178 he was rammed in the rear end by Brian Vickers and punted into the wall. It seemed like retaliation by Vickers on Kenseth for their on-track spat two weeks ago at Martinsville, every bit as blatant as the retaliation on Ron Hornaday that had seen Kyle Busch parked at Texas last weekend, so everyone held their breath to see whether NASCAR agreed that this crossed the mythic 'line' that they had evoked for Busch. No action was forthcoming, and NASCAR explained that Kenseth had been suffering from brake issues and the crash was a result of an unsuspecting Vickers coming up too fast on the rear of a coasting #17 that was having to ease unusually slowly into the turn.
Kenseth wasn't convinced. "Well yeah, obviously it is retaliation for retaliation," he said. "You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out and they do nothing about it. It was so premeditated it just surprises me that they didn't do anything. I am disappointed but I expected it."
Referring to the Busch-Hornaday retaliation last weekend, Kenseth added: "If NASCAR is going to start parking people for being mad 25 second after you wreck and wrecking somebody then you would park somebody for that ... They need to figure out how to get the drivers to settle their difference in a different way and talk about it or figure it out or do something instead of using your car as a battering ram somewhere this fast."
Kenseth did re-emerge much later to try and claw back a few positions and points back, and everyone waited to see whether he would seek out Vickers for some revenge of his own. "No, not at all. I don't stoop to that level," he insisted. "I would never sit down there and wait for somebody and take a cheap shot like that. You can hurt someone like that and that isn't sportsmanlike and that isn't something I would do."
"I wasn't planning on paying him back," Vickers insisted. "He wrecked me at Martinsville, he got wrecked here. I'm not saying I wasn't going to pay him back, I'm just saying that wasn't it."
With Kenseth out of the way and Kevin Harvick never a threat at Phoenix - usually running around the mid-teens all afternoon - the Chase battle really had finally had come down to a two-man shootout. Edwards led Stewart to the restart on lap 182, but Smoke wasn't about to take that lying down and he promptly put the #14 back in front again to make the point that this was his race, thank you very much, and that Carl should keep his hands off it. Tony led for the next 40 laps until the eighth yellow on lap 220 when Robby Gordon managed to hit the wall (Geoff Bodine having done so much damage to the #36 by this point that he was no longer available for caution instigation incidents.)
That proved to be the last caution of the day, which left the cars with almost 90 laps to run to the end - too far to get to without a final pit stop, so fuel conservations strategies were moot. All that mattered was the timing and execution of the final pit stop, and of course who had the best cars for the cooling conditions.
Kurt Busch and Paul Menard had taken two tyres each and duly led the field ahead of Edwards and Stewart. Menard soon dropped back, but Busch proved remarkably resilient in the lead and led the next 57 laps, until suddenly he found he'd pushed the fuel too far - he'd run dry on his approach into pit lane. That meant that the ensuing stop was painfully long as the pit crew had to coax gas back into the fuel lines. Then he stalled it trying to get away and finally to add salt to the gaping self-inflicted wound he got a drive-thru for entering pit lane too quickly because of the distractions.
Busch isn't known for his calm demeanour at such moments, and once again he was on the radio venting for all to hear: "We just never learn from our mistakes. Brilliant. Just brilliant," he fumed. "Just trying to make sure we finish 11th in points, aren't we? Unreal."
That put Carl Edwards in the lead again with Kasey Kahne in second, having worked his way steadily up through the positions since the last restart. Kahne pitted first on lap 288 and took right-side tyres and fuel; Edwards was in four laps later on the same strategy and Stewart was in shortly after switching to a no-tyre, fuel-only gambit.
That left Brad Keselowski minding the store for four laps ahead of Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart. Keselowski came in on lap 299 which put him a lap down, and handed the lead to Kahne who was over a second ahead of Edwards. Could Carl do anything about the #4 in the remaining 14 laps? He gave it a decent try and closed to under eight-tenths, but then Kahne simply pushed a bit harder and eked out the lead once more. Try as he might, Edwards had to concede he didn't have enough to get back in front in the remaining time - and sure enough, the end of lap 312 saw the chequered flag out for Kahne.
"We put the whole race together today and then had a little luck," said a happy Kahne in victory lane. "Everything that falls into winning a race, we had it today."
The win was Kahne's 12th in Cup racing in 287 starts, his first at Phoenix and also his first in 81 races, the last coming at Atlanta in September 2009 for Richard Petty Motorsports. It's a fitting way to say farewell to Red Bull Racing: regardless of what happens to the team when the drinks company ends its funding of the outfit at the end of the year, Kahne himself is definitely moving on and will be at the wheel of the Hendrick Motorsports #5 car in 2012 taking over from Mark Martin.
Edwards finished in second, and admitted that it was a bit disappointing having to play safe and leave Kahne with the win. "I felt that the strategy we went with, we had to do it that way," he insisted. "To pit early with him and leave the opportunity to be a lap down and mired back in the field if there were a restart ... I believe Bob did the right thing.
"I would have loved to won this race for sure. That is what we all do this for," he confessed. "I think we did a really good job today. I am not certain if we had the fastest car, but we performed well with it and got a good result."
Behind Edwards, Stewart battled hard with Jeff Burton to reclaim third place in the final laps. "It just looked like he got a little tight and I was able to get rotated in the centre and get underneath him," said Stewart of the pass. "But I don't think he pushed the issue really hard; I think he raced us with respect there and so I appreciate that."
It might only have been a single position, but the extra point that it gave together with the bonus point for leading most laps of the day (160 of the 312 race distance) meant that he tied Edwards for championship points on the day. They came into Phoenix three points apart; they would leave in exactly the same situation.
"Every point counts right now," agreed Stewart. "That's why we raced Carl so hard, and Kasey so hard. We led enough laps to lead the most laps today so we're going for every single point we can get right now."
It means that it all comes down to one final race to decide the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. And for the first time, we can say definitively that the new champion will be either Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart, as everyone else is now mathematically eliminated from contention: the only other Chase driver who even finished in the top ten at Phoenix was Ryan Newman in fifth, but he had long ago fallen out of reach of the title, as had Denny Hamlin who finished Sunday's race in 12th.
But it was a landmark day for Jimmie Johnson, who finished in 14th place after at one point describing the #48 as "scary, scary loose." Although he improved in the second half of the race, he still ended up 68pts off Edwards in the standings and now no longer has any hopes of retaining his title for a six consecutive season.
"What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular," said Johnson after the race. "I'm definitely disappointed that we won't be able to go to Homestead and race for our sixth, but that's motorsports. It's a very tough business."
Keselowski dropped a lap off the lead with his final stop and finished 18th place, just one ahead of Kevin Harvick. In terms of championship points that left Keselowski in fourth place, 65pts off Edwards; and Harvick in third place with 51pts. With less than 50pts available per race, that means that Harvick is also now formally eliminated from title contention, as are Kurt Busch after his fuel issue, underperforming Hendrick duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth after his clash with Vickers.
And then there was Kyle Busch, who would have been hoping for an inconspicuous, uneventful day at the office after being in the eye of the 'parking' storm at Texas. Even his #18 car looked in disguise, stripped of the distinctive, colourful livery of sponsors M&Ms who wanted to put some distance between themselves and NASCAR's bad boy for the remainder of the season.
Busch had to start from the back of the grid after needing an engine change in Friday practice following what was described as a 'human error' by the crew. Despite that, he'd worked himself up to the front and at one point was running in third place, but then on lap 187 he suddenly dropped low down the track and radioed in that his car was blowing up - the replacement engine had gone the way of its predecessor. "No indication this time," Kyle said afterwards. "Catastrophic engine failure ... It's terrible to have one in a weekend, let alone two."
So with everyone else now out of the running and just three points between them, it's wide open as to whether Edwards or Stewart will be crowned champion this time next week.
"Homestead is going to be a lot of fun, I really enjoy racing there," said Edwards, who has an impressive record of results at the Miami speedway. "I don't know that there is a better place to go than Homestead to fight for this championship."
"We'll just keep doing what we're doing," insisted Stewart, whose Homestead record is rather less than rock solid. "We have a third and two wins in the last three races so we're going to keep the pressure on him and we'll make him sweat it out."
As for the outgoing champion, Jimmie Johnson, he admitted that one upside of being out of contention for the 2011 title was that he would be a lot less stressed about the final race of the season for once: "I'll definitely have more fun and get a lot of sleep going in there. I'll bet you the #99 and the #14 won't!
"I'll have fun watching from the sidelines," he added.
Full race results and times