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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.



Related Pictures

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No. 99 Aflac Ford - Carl Edwards [Pic credit: Getty for NASCAR]
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, receives a lobster in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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David Ragan, driver of the #34 Taco Bell Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, are seen on the track after crashing during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, loses control of the car after making contact with Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Will Schneekloth/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, leads the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS qualified for sixth position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Johnson is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Designate A Driver Chevrolet SS qualified for third position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Harvick is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Belkin/Wemo Chevrolet SS qualified for second position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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