Improbable Phoenix Finish Sets Up Edwards-Stewart Title Showdown

Kasey Kahne won at Phoenix for his his first win of the year and the 12th time in his career. For his Red Bull Racing team, the victory was a tremendous lift in a long season that, when over, could mean the team's demise.

I’m not sure even Hollywood would touch a script based upon what happened in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The two guys vying for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship came into the race separated by a mere three points. Each one stages a terrific performance in an effort to keep, or take away, the points lead.

As it turns out neither one wins the race. But, remarkably, they finish second and third. Even more remarkable, their separation in points remains at three with just one race left in the season.

Hollywood ain’t buying.

Oh, it gets better. The guy who does win at Phoenix is not only ineligible for a championship, he also hadn’t been victorious in the last 81 races – over two years ago.

There’s more. The team for which he races will lose all its financial support at the end of the year and, unless it is sold, will no longer exist – which means that many talented people will become unemployed.

So with the victory the team gains a full measure of satisfaction and, if it should dissolve, at least it knows it had a glorious moment in the limelight before the end.

And yet, perhaps, its performance has been enough to prove its worth and entice a buyer who pulls it back from the brink of extinction.

Trust me, Hollywood sure ain’t buying this tale. I’m not sure even Disney or Spielberg would have anything to do with it.

But, as has been said often, sometimes reality can be far stranger than fiction. So it is after Phoenix.

When the race began Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards held a slim three-point lead over Tony Stewart, who moved into the role of title contender based upon his four wins in the Chase – easily more than any other driver.

At Phoenix, Stewart did all he could to overtake Edwards. Among other things, as he made a strong bid for win No. 5 in the Chase, he led the most laps.

But in the end circumstances dictated that Stewart would finish one position behind Edwards, who also made a strong run for victory but wound up in second place.

Edwards second; Stewart third and, as improbable as it sounds, they remain three points apart as the season comes to a close on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne, who was 21st in points and hopelessly out of championship consideration when the Chase began at Chicago on Sept. 18, won at Phoenix to give Red Bull Racing its first, and to date only, victory of 2011.

It was announced weeks ago that Red Bull would cease its NASCAR operations after this season. Not that it would affect Kahne – who is headed to Hendrick Motorsports next season as Mark Martin’s replacement – but it would mean yet another wave of job losses unless the team is sold.

Finding a buyer has been a pressing task for team general manager Jay Frye. Maybe the job has now become a little bit easier because anyone interested in NASCAR team ownership must have sense enough to know that all the talent involved – not just that of the driver and crew chief – is the true measure of success.

Simply put, the victory certainly doesn’t hurt Frye’s efforts a darn bit, does it?

Kahne’s victory should come as no surprise. Given his performances in recent weeks many thought it was just a matter of time

As improbable as it sounds, Carl Edwards (left) finished second at Phoenix while Tony Stewart wound up third. That means the two are still only three points apart, with Edwards in front, in the fight for the title as the season comes to a close at Homestead this weekend.

During the Chase he has been the best among the non-qualifiers. In five of the six races preceding Phoenix, he did not finish lower than sixth – including a second place at Kansas and a third at Texas.

“It means a lot,” said Kahne, who last won at Atlanta in September of 2009 and now has 12 career victories. “Some of these guys haven’t won before and it felt like I haven’t won, either.

“For Kenny (Francis, crew chief, who will join Kahne at Hendrick) and the whole team that’s been together for a while at Red Bull, it’s been a long season. The guys haven’t given up. We keep getting better as the season goes and it takes time to finish things up. I just wanted to win for them really bad before the switch.

“Man, they’ve been a big part of NASCAR. I just hope in some way they are still a big part of NASCAR because I know everyone really enjoys them being here.”

The race-closing series of green-flag pit stops made the difference at Phoenix. With 21 laps remaining in the 312-lap race, Edwards pitted to surrender his lead.

Stewart pitted two laps later and suffered after an air pressure adjustment negatively affected his car’s handling.

With 14 laps to go leader Brad Keselowski pitted to give Kahne the lead he would hold until the finish.

On the last lap Stewart passed Jeff Burton to move into third place behind Edwards to set up the season’s most unlikely, and very dramatic, conclusion. It’s down to Edwards and Stewart. All other Chase contenders have been eliminated.

We did almost everything we needed to do,” said Stewart, a two-time champion. “We led a lap, led the most laps, and just came up two spots shy. But it was just a little bit too loose on entry the last two runs there.

“We were able to run Jeff down and get back to third. So we’re keeping Carl honest.

“We have a third and two wins in the last three races so we’re going to keep the pressure on him. We’ll make him sweat it out.”

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Edwards, who has won two of the last three races at Homestead and may become the first driver to win a title with just one victory in a season since Matt Kenseth in 2003. “It is going to be fun. It is neat to go to Homestead and race it out.

“I love that place. It was a good hard fought day. I am really pumped for Homestead. I think it is going to be a good time.”

I don’t think there can be any doubt about that.

Nor should any of us be surprised if the race produces another scenario even Hollywood would not believe.

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