If you're in Avondale, Arizona and the temperature is struggling to reach the mid-70s in the afternoon, you know it's late in the year. And that means it's very late in the 2010 Sprint Cup season, with the Kobalt Tools 500 the penultimate race of the year. It was virtually impossible for this race to actually decide this year's champion, but it could have gone a long way to singling out the favourite to win at next week's season climax: instead, it did just the opposite.

Polesitter Carl Edwards led the race from the green flag, but there was a quick yellow on lap 2 after a right front tyre blow-out meant Brendan Gaughan introduced the #71 to the wall, and at the restart Kurt Busch proved to have the faster race car and led until Edwards got the top spot back on lap 28, during which time both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were making quick work of the midfield and had cracked the top ten after starting 17th and 29th respectively, although Harvick gave the wall a glancing blow in the process. Jimmie Johnson, starting from 21st, was taking things a little more slowly but still knocking on the door by lap 33 as he tussled with Tony Stewart over 11th spot.

There was no sedateness to Hamlin's determined rise, however, and it was clear that he was on a mission to give himself as much of a Sprint Cup cushion going into the final race as he could by maximising his points here. He was into the top five on lap 30, passed AJ Allmendinger for third on lap 41 and took over second spot from Kurt Busch on lap 52.

Hamlin closed to within a second of Edwards by the time the second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 59, following a blown tyre for Brad Keselowski that led to a hard hit for him against the outer wall. That gave the field the chance to pit under yellow, which was much needed: the ageing surface of the Phoenix International Raceway was really tearing up the tyres, resulting in a 2s drop-off in lap times from the start of a tyre stint to the end, a huge margin on a track with an average qualifying lap in the 27s range. The track is to be resurfaced after the February 2011 Sprint Cup event, but in the meantime the drivers were just relieved to be back on fresh rubber.

At the restart Edwards and Hamlin lined up on the front row followed by Kurt Busch and his brother Kyle on the second (Kyle having had a serious brush against the wall earlier in the race on lap 31) and Martin Truex Jr. just behind. Given that opportunity there was no way that Hamlin wasn't going to blast away into the lead, leaving Edwards to struggle unsuccessfully to hold onto second spot from Kurt. Hamlin built up a comfortable lead of over two seconds before the next caution on lap 101 for debris, but lost the lead in the ensuring pit stops so that the restart line-up was Edwards, Hamlin, Kurt and Kyle Busch and then Ryan Newman in fifth. But once again, Hamlin's superior pace at the green flag quickly put matters to rights and he was off into the lead again; but he didn't have the same pace as before and his pit chief conceded that the half-round down adjustment had been a miscall and needed to be reversed come next stop.

By lap 140 it was still Hamlin in the lead, with Edwards shadowing him in second, then Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart making up the top five and Kevin Harvick staying in touch in eighth. The top four remained unchanged through a sequence of green flag pit stops around lap 170 which had little effect on the key runners, although Kasey Kahne suffered the embarrassment of leaving the pit box with the gas can still inserted into the fuel tank, forcing him to slowly go round a full pap and come back in to have it removed. Johnson's pit stops were noticeably faster this week following the debacle at Texas, having made the switch of crews between himself and Jeff Gordon a permanent one for the remainder of 2010, but Tony Stewart dropped out and Harvick was promoted into fifth place. That meant that all three Sprint Cup contenders were now running in the top five for the first time that afternoon.

On lap 217 Hamlin formally clinched the bonus points for number of laps led, by which time Kyle had taken over the second spot from Edwards and Jimmie Johnson had been fading, squeezed out of the top five by surges from Harvick and Tony Stewart and under threat from Jeff Burton for sixth when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 222 for a spin by Robby Gordon.

Kyle got the better pit stop and led the cars to the restart, but then quickly lost out to Hamlin and then failed to hold off Carl Edwards for second before the field went rapidly back to yellow: this time, a spin by Travis Kvapil on lap 233. The top eight declined the lure of pit lane, but Harvick had lost ground in the previous pit stops after having to come back into the pits because of a missing lug nut which put him well down the running order. That gave him the opening to be among those to come in for some fine tuning adjustments on the track bar and more air in the rear tyres that left him down in 16th place, but crucially it meant he could make it all the way to the end of the race even if there were no further cautions; neither Hamlin nor Johnson could safely say the same.

Hamlin again led at the restart on lap 239 and seemed to be having a reasonably comfortable time of it over Edwards; but 20 laps into the green flag stint and Edwards was coming on strong in the higher temperatures of late afternoon and was pulling right up on the tail of Hamlin. Edwards tried move after move down the inside on Hamlin and almost looked to have the pass done, only for Hamlin to emerge faster off the turns and just hold on, until at last on lap 266 Edwards completed the move and took the lead for the fifth time during the afternoon.

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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