Kevin Harvick won the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway after Carl Edwards ran out of fuel while leading with two laps to go.
But Jimmie Johnson may be an even bigger winner as he took a commanding lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup ahead of next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Edwards assumed control of the lead with 35 laps to go after a lengthy green-flag cycle of stops ended. But with two laps remaining, he suddenly slowed down the backstretch, which enabled Harvick to pass him for the lead while coming to the white flag.
Harvick went on to win by 1.8 seconds over Kasey Kahne after leading a race-high 70 of 312 laps.
Meanwhile, Johnson survived two major run-ins on the track and rallied to a third-place finish, while Matt Kenseth was unable to overcome both handling and pit road problems and finished 23rd, one lap off the pace.
As a result, Johnson’s lead over Kenseth in the championship has ballooned to a margin of 28 points with just one race remaining.
If Johnson can finish 23rd or better in South Florida, he’ll secure his sixth Sprint Cup and inch closer to seven-time Cup champions Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
“I really had to fall back on my dirt-driving skills from racing in the desert for all the years that I did in both of those instances,” Johnson told ESPN while referring to those two potential disasters he avoided.
On Lap 1, Johnson fell from the pole to sixth place after contact with Joey Logano in Turn 3 knocked him out of the groove. Then on Lap 163, Edwards made contact with Johnson that sent the two up the race track and forced Johnson to make another save.
Johnson tumbled to 26th after his incident with Edwards, which happened just before a caution came out for a spinning J.J. Yeley. But he got some help when under that yellow, Kenseth suffered a 25-second pit stop that began with confusion over whether he should take two or four tires, and then got worse when he ran over an air hose, forcing him to back up in his pit box.
Kenseth fell from seventh to 29th, and was unable to completely recover as his car simply wouldn’t come around to him. Meanwhile, Johnson quickly cut through the field and advanced back into the lead pack as multiple pit strategies played out across the field in the race’s second half.
“The 20 [Kenseth] wasn’t having the best day, so after that issue [on Lap 163], we came to pit road and left, and I expected him to be well ahead of me and he was behind me,” Johnson said.
“At that point, I knew I was in good shape relative to the championship battle. I knew that I had a good car and I could get through traffic, and it was just about getting points on [Kenseth] at that point.”
Now, Kenseth has no choice but to go for broke at Homestead – and hope Johnson breaks as well.
“I’m disappointed, obviously,” Kenseth said. “The way our season’s gone, kinda being in the championship hunt, we hoped to go down to Homestead and race for it on performance.
“On the other hand, I’m really proud of our team. There’s not another car I’d rather be driving…We’ve had an amazing, incredible season and we’ve still got one week left.”