Remember the days when Carl Edwards was a contender for the win in practically every race of the season? If it seems a long time ago to you, you're not the only one. After a terribly anonymous 2012, victory lane was beginning to feel like a distant dream for the Roush Fenway Racing driver himself. But eventually the wheel turns again, and on Sunday Edwards was indeed once again basking in Cup success, for the first time since Las Vegas almost exactly two years ago.
"It's just so cool to win this race, I can't tell you how cool this is. I love Phoenix. This is a blast, I love it - I'm glad to be here!" said a thrilled Edwards in victory lane after clinching the chequered flag in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the season of the season. "This is the Subway Fresh Fit 500, we just won the race in the Subway Ford Fusion! This is insane, very cool!"
Edwards also ended up leading the most laps of the race, staying out in front for 122 of the 316 laps of the event. But it was polesitter Mark Martin who led the initial part of the race, leading the first 50 laps until the first round of pit stops. While Kasey Kahne got the jump on Martin in pit lane, Juan Montoya led the field at the restart by staying out altogether, vying with and eventually losing out to Greg Biffle for the top spot. Martin's own chances of winning took a blow soon after when an unscheduled extra pit stop a few laps later for new right side tyres put him temporarily a lap down.
As the race approached lap 100, the yellow flags were out for the fourth time. The first caution had been on lap 22 for Scott Riggs hitting the wall at turn 4; the second had been for Kyle Busch on lap 49. Saturday's dominant Nationwide winner had needed to start from the back of the field alongside his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin after late engine changes for both cars; Busch had been trying to pass Edwards when he'd spun and clipped the wall at turn 2, forcing him to go a lap down while the damage was repaired on pit lane.
The third caution had been on lap 66 when contact from David Stremme assisted Dave Blaney into a spin at turn 1; and the latest caution on lap 98 was for Ryan Newman having a tyre go down on him, one of a number of drivers with issues with melted beads seemingly caused by being over-stressed by the car's camber set-up. Newman was able to continue the race, but would be the cause of the next caution on lap 141 when the damage the #39 had already experienced contributed to it slamming into the wall at turn 1. This time the car was done for the day, Newman running down the track and hurdling the pit road wall in his haste to get back to his trailer, get changed and leave Phoenix behind him.
"We blew a right front, and I wasn't real sure why,” Newman said of the first incident. "I don't know if we melted a bead or what it was, but that set the stage for blowing the right front the second time. We didn't have enough caution laps to get it fixed and fixed right. The sway bar wasn't hooked up, the splitter was off. It was a tough day for our Quicken Loans Chevrolet. We had a decent car. We just didn't get to show it, track position-wise."
In between the two Newman cautions, Mark Martin had returned to the front by virtue of being out of sync with everyone else on pit stop strategy, and then Brad Keselowski took his place in the lead though to the next round of pit stops. Carl Edwards won the race of pit road, putting him into the lead of a Cup race for the first time in 13 races, the last time he'd led being the August night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
He liked the view from there so much that he stayed out in front for the next 44 laps, the latest driver to demonstrate that the new Generation 6 stock cars were tough to pass once they got out in front. Edwards would finally surrender the lead on lap 189 under the next round of pit stops, which saw fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the race off pit road this time ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson, with Matt Kenseth edging Edwards for third place.
The yellows for that stop had been triggered by a big hit for Danica Patrick, the latest driver to suffer a tyre problem which sent her into a hard impact with the wall at turn 4 on lap 1, which then also sent her rebounding into the path of David Ragan's car. The multiple impacts left strips of sheet metal from the #10 scattered on the frontstretch, and Danica initially appeared somewhat dazed and she was taken to the infield care centre and evaluated, but she was quickly released without needing treatment.
"Obviously I blew a right front. No real warning. I wasn't that tight either; I was sliding a little bit," she told reporters afterwards. "It was a little unexpected. I took a hard hit to the right, and then on the left. I'm fine.
"Probably Daytona was a little bit bigger," she continued when asked if that was her biggest hit so car in stock car racing. "And it was on the right and the left. So whenever those right-fronts go, they always hit hard because you don't broadside. You kind of hit more straight on. I took a hard hit on both side, but I'm fine. NASCAR is doing a good job with safety."
David Gilliland was the next driver with a blown tyre, bringing out the seventh caution on lap 237. This was good timing at last for Kyle Busch, who finally got the free pass back onto the lead lap with this latest yellow after repeatedly missing out since his own spin nearly 200 laps before; but it was less ideal for the rest of the field, who had to make a tactical decision on whether they were in range to try running a fuel strategy from here to the finish or not.
Carl Edwards won the race off pit road this time and lined up alongside Earnhardt for the green flag; but the #88 spun its wheels at the restart, gifting the uncontested lead to Edwards who needed no second invitation to run with the opportunity. Johnson took over second place and Brad Keselowski claimed third from Earnhardt, who at least managed to hold off Denny Hamlin in the #11.
While Hamlin had shared his JGR team mate's pre-race misfortune with his engines requiring him to start from the back, unlike Busch he'd kept his nose clean ever since and quietly worked his way back through the running order during the afternoon to make it into fifth place. However, Hamlin afterwards denied that he'd actually achieved all that many passes in the new Generation 6 Toyota, crediting his pit crew for winning him most of his track position on Sunday.
"Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 to go, I would have stayed there, I wouldn't have moved up," he said. "I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars. This is more like what the Generation 5 was at the beginning. The teams hadn't figured out how to get the aero balance right."
Edwards was feeling rather more kindly disposed toward the Generation 6 cars as it kept him more or less untouchable out in the front. The last thing Edwards wanted or needed with three laps to go was another caution closing things up, but that's just what he got when Ken Schrader had a tyre go down, sending the race into green-white-chequered overtime. For drivers already anxious about making their fuel stretch to the finish, this was a crucial moment: the leaders all stuck to their gambit, while Mark Martin now running in 12th position was the highest-placed driver to pit.
"Fords get great fuel mileage, so I wasn't too worried about that," insisted Edwards afterwards. "But I was really worried about Jimmie Johnson and Brad and all those guys behind me."
Before the final restart, Hamlin was allowed to pass Earnhardt for fourth place after the #88 was thought to be struggling to maintain sufficient pace and possibly running dry. At the green flag, Hamlin also managed to get past Brad Keselowski for third place and then laid siege to Johnson for second place. Ultimately the #48 retained the advantage, and meanwhile Edwards had things well in hand over both of them to claim the chequered flag a second ahead of last week's Daytona 500 winner.
It breaks a 70-race winless streak for Edwards, who had abysmal an 2012 championship after finishing the previous year in the runner-up position to Tony Stewart for the title. The relief of finally resuming business as usual with a welcome return to victory lane was evident on Edwards' face even as he performed his trademark backward flip off the driver's door of the #99.
"I thought for the last few laps it was gonna be easy and then they had that caution," he said. "It was an awesome restart, Brad Keselowski pushed me and that meant a lot. He stayed in line there and he pushed and we got a Ford to victory lane, so I've got to thank Brad."
Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings