Harvick leads Johnson. (LAT photo)
Kevin Harvick grabbed the Phoenix NASCAR Sprint Cup win as Carl Edwards ran out of fuel on the last lap, while Jimmie Johnson moved to the brink of a sixth title.
As Johnson took third place behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, his championship rival Matt Kenseth struggled to 23rd. That gives Johnson a 28-point lead heading to next Sunday’s Homestead season finale and means he only needs to finish 23rd or higher.
Johnson achieved that result despite two major scares during the race. The first came on the opening lap, when he immediately lost his pole advantage and ended up three-abreast with Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Contact with the latter sent Johnson sliding, but he regained control in sixth place.
A host of mid-race yellows prompted a wide array of different pit strategies and a constantly shuffled order, and it was during that period that Johnson was knocked sideways again as Edwards slid into him while avoiding a dive from Harvick. The points leader stayed out of the wall and continued back in 25th place, but was able to quickly regain ground as the strategies played out and with some assertive driving.
“At two different points, as I saved it, the car pointed back at the fence, and I thought I was going to hit it,” Johnson said. “Thankful that that didn’t happen, clearly. [It] certainly worried me, and then we were mired in traffic after that, and I didn’t know what that was going to mean for us.”
When the race order finally settled for the last 30 laps, Edwards was leading in his Roush Fenway Ford by a second over Kahne. Harvick’s Richard Childress Chevrolet had the freshest tires of the lead cars and was able to pass Johnson and Kahne in quick succession to take second.
Edwards still looked set for a second Phoenix win of 2013 as he maintained a one-second cushion, until his car ran dry approaching the white flag. As Edwards coasted to the finish in 21st place, Harvick claimed victory by 1.7 seconds over Kahne, with Johnson next up.
“I saw him slowing with about maybe a lap and a half, two laps to go. Richard (Childress) came across the radio and said he was slowing down. I’m like, ‘Dang, we might still be in this thing.'”
Kenseth was off the pace all day. A terrible mid-race pit stop, just after Johnson’s incident with Edwards threw him a lifeline, put Kenseth right back in 29th, and he made little progress, finishing a lapped 21st.
“Obviously, it didn’t drive good or we would have been up there with the front group,” Kenseth said. “I just did all I could with it, which wasn’t much.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought back to fourth after a loose wheel left him a lap down in 35th place early on.
Kurt Busch completed the top five, with Juan Pablo Montoya producing a strong drive to sixth position.
The various tactical permutations meant that Logano, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon all led for long spells but finished ninth, 10th, 11th and 14th.
Hamlin had led the first 18 laps following Logano and Johnson’s brush, but a dramatic loss of pace, a spin and a pitlane speeding penalty dropped him to 28th.
Results - 312 laps:Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet 2h57m03.000s 2. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet +1.796s 3. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet +2.925s 4. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet +4.309s 5. Kurt Busch Furniture Row Chevrolet +5.118s 6. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet +6.338s 7. Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs Toyota +6.977s 8. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota +7.303s 9. Joey Logano Penske Ford +8.203s10. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet +8.699s11. Brad Keselowski Penske Ford +9.048s12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr Roush Fenway Ford +9.470s13. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford +10.029s14. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet +10.824s15. Mark Martin Stewart-Haas Chevrolet +11.604s16. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet +12.791s17. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet +13.210s18. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet +14.261s19. Aric Almirola Petty Ford +15.766s20. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota +18.973s21. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford +33.608s22. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota +1 lap23. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford +1 lap24. David Gilliland Front Row Ford +1 lap25. Elliott Sadler Waltrip Toyota +1 lap26. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford +1 lap27. Casey Mears Germain Ford +1 lap28. Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Toyota +1 lap29. JJ Yeley Baldwin Chevrolet +1 lap30. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet +2 laps31. Justin Allgaier Phoenix Chevrolet +3 laps32. Michael McDowell Parsons Ford +4 laps33. Danica Patrick Stewart-Haas Chevrolet +10 laps34. Timmy Hill FAS Lane Ford +27 laps35. David Ragan Front Row Ford +30 lapsRetirements: Josh Wise Front Row Ford 280 laps Reed Sorenson Leavine Ford 266 laps Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 193 laps David Reutimann BK Toyota 187 laps Cole Whitt Swan Toyota 142 laps Travis Kvapil BK Toyota 129 laps Landon Cassill Hillman Chevrolet 63 laps Tony Raines Circle Sport Chevrolet 29 laps