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.