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.