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Hamlin hangs on as Edwards, Johnson celebrate

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Carl Edwards won Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.

Or was it Jimmie Johnson?

In the hours after the race at Phoenix International Raceway, it was difficult to tell who was more excited with their finish.

Edwards claimed the victory, holding off Ryan Newman as several cars ran out of fuel to snap his career-long 70-race winless streak. It’s his first Sprint Cup Series win since the 2008 season finale at Homestead, Fla.

“It’s something that we needed for our confidence and we needed it as a payoff for all the hard work that the guys put in at the shop and the engine department,” said Edwards. He and his No. 99 Ford won the pole and led all three practice sessions over the weekend.

“It would be nice to get another one at Homestead, but to go into the off-season knowing that we’re getting better and it looks like we have a really legitimate shot to finish fourth in the points, to be in the All-Star Race next season – to have that energy going forward – all of those things are good.”

Johnson celebrated, too, as he and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team cashed in on a make-or-break championship fuel gamble that leaves them well in hunt for a fifth consecutive championship.

Series leader Denny Hamlin led the most laps and appeared ready to greatly widen his advantage over Johnson heading into next weekend’s season finale at Homestead. A long green-flag run late in the race scratched that scenario.

Hamlin couldn’t make it to the finish without more fuel, while Johnson’s team began employing an urgent fuel-saving strategy. Johnson made it to the end and finished fifth while Hamlin was 12th.

That leaves Johnson 15 points behind Hamlin with one race left.

“We’re going to go home and we’re going to make sure we have the best engines, go through our simulation stuff, make sure our car is as fast as it can be and then race,” Johnson said.

“We were in a good situation and could take the risk, take the chance. It worked out for us.”

Edwards celebrated his victory with a mob of fans after running into the stands, something he did after winning a Nationwide series race at Texas as well.

While Edwards made the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, he had been absent from Victory Lane for nearly two years. Only teammate Greg Biffle had won in the Cup series for the Roush Fenway organization this season.

But in the last month or so, Edwards, Biffle and Matt Kenseth have challenged far more frequently for wins.

"I’m very proud at how our team has come together through this past two years since we’ve won," Edwards said. "And I’m very proud to be a part of this team because we very easily could have fallen apart.

“Instead, we just kept working and here we are in Victory Lane, fourth in points, salvaging a season that did not begin well, so I’m just proud of everybody.”

With Hamlin as the leader, all of the lead-lap cars pitted on Lap 224 during a caution caused by Robby Gordon's spin in Turn 3.

Kyle Busch restarted as the leader, with Hamlin second, Edwards third and Johnson fourth. Kevin Harvick had a missing lug nut and was required to pit again, and his crew added fuel.

Hamlin’s team knew right away their driver could not make it the distance without stopping. And another caution six laps later didn’t help.

Edwards got around Hamlin on Lap 266. Hamlin then pitted for fuel and took two new tires on Lap 297. Edwards held on for the win as Johnson and Harvick made it to the end, finishing fifth and sixth, respectively.

Hamlin was visibly frustrated and disappointed after the race.

“The strategy and what-not at the end just didn’t work our way. That’s all I can ask for, is to have the better car than those two guys – and we did. But, unfortunately, the strategy bit us,” he said.

“We’re just going to have to go there and do it the old-fashioned way next week and try to beat them on the race track.”

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