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Edwards wins as Hamlin falls short

Freed up and in clear air, Edwards demonstrated just how much faster he could run than Hamlin by quickly pulling away. With no yellow flags in sight, Hamlin was now worried about the looming need for a quick fuel stop; remarkably, Edwards - despite also not stopping since lap 225 - seemed confident that he could make it all the way on fuel along with those who had pitted ten laps later such as Harvick who was doing all he could to fight his way back up the running order after that lug nut issue. He was held up for a lengthy period behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer who were side-by-side having a fierce battle over 14th position: Bowyer came close to losing the #33 and creating a big wreck with Harvick first in line for damage, but Bowyer held on to it somehow and Harvick could breath again and finally get past and out of danger.

Jimmie Johnson was also clearly in fuel conservation mode and dropping back, hoping to lean out the fuel just enough to get to the end even though it eventually meant turning off the fans and staying off the brakes as much as possible in the final laps as he ran on fumes. There was no such hope for Hamlin, and it was starting to look serious for his Sprint Cup strategy. He desperately sought some sort of caution, and reported debris on track at turn 2 on lap 287 in the hope that it would bring out the yellow flags; but it didn't. Finally he pulled into pit road on lap 298 for two tyres and fuel, a stop of 7.6s which put him back out on track in 19th spot, a lap down and only a dozen laps to make up for lost ground. It was a big ask, even with so many of those ahead having to nurse their fuel to the line.

With Edwards among those having to stretch their fuel to almost impossible lengths, Hamlin had no difficulty in passing Edwards on lap 301 to get back on the lead lap and was then passing the backmarkers on the lead lap in a desperate attempt to make up positions before the chequered flag came out: on lap 302 he was past AJ Allmendinger for 18th; he gained another place the following lap when Jeff Burton was among those to concede defeat on fuel and take to the pits; and seven laps later Hamlin was passing Dale Earnhardt Jr for 14th.

But the laps were running out: another place was gained when Clint Bowyer had to dive in for a splash and dash on lap 310, and still another the following lap when Juan Montoya ran dry. But that still left Hamlin an achingly distant 12th place as the cars came around the final turn to take the finish, while Johnson's fuel conservation strategy had left him with 5th just ahead of Harvick in 6th.

"Bad strategy at the end," said a frustrated Hamlin. "Usually we have the best fuel mileage. That part I don't understand." In terms of Sprint Cup points, this was indeed bad for Hamlin, his lead over Johnson cut from 33pts after Texas to just 14pts now, and Harvick also closer if still 46pts back. But it could have been a lot worse, and Hamlin still goes into the final race weekend in the lead in the points.

The celebrations in victory lane were all about Carl Edwards, who celebrated with his trademark backflip off the car just as he had done the previous day when he had also won the Nationwide Series event here: today had been almost exclusively a two-horse battle, and when Hamlin had dropped the ball on fuel it left Carl Edwards the deserving winner after far too long away from the top spot on the podium.

But even as the celebrations went on, everyone's minds turned to Homestead-Miami in one week's time, and the realisation that - with the tightest-ever finish to the Sprint Cup in its modern Chase format - for the first time, we genuinely have no idea who is favourite to win out of Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick. So much for Phoenix proving to be a decider; and the NASCAR season finale is all the better for the lack of certainty.



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