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.