AVONDALE, Ariz. — While Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have gone round-for-round in their race for the Sprint Cup title, Kasey Kahne has quietly turned his performance up a notch outside of the championship spotlight.
Kahne’s performance the last nine weeks has trailed only the two title contenders, and on Sunday, he finally got a win to show for his efforts.
Kahne snapped an 81-race winless streak with his victory at Phoenix International Raceway, where Edwards and Stewart finished second and third to keep the title race tight headed into next weekend’s season finale.
“If I’m in a racecar, I want to do the best that I can,” Kahne said, crediting crew chief Kenny Francis for giving him strong Toyotas that have allowed him “to perform with and run with Carl and Tony, who have been probably the two best.”
They’ve been the only two drivers better than Kahne, and one of them will officially unseat five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson next Sunday at Homestead.
Edwards will take a three-point lead over Stewart into the 36th and final race of the season, marking the closest championship battle since the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format made its debut in 2004.
The two were nearly giddy discussing the title race as they sat side-by-side in the post-race news conference.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead heat going in there,” said Stewart. “I want to go to Homestead tomorrow and start. I want tomorrow to be Friday. I’m pumped up, I’m excited about it and ready to go.”
So was Edwards.
“This is going to be a battle. I truly believe it’s going to be a good race,” Edwards said. “That place is magical for us. I really enjoy going there. I hope it comes down to the fastest guy winning the race.”
Stewart, winner of four Chase races this season, dominated Sunday at Phoenix and led 160 of the 312 laps. But he had to pit for gas with 18 laps remaining, and was forced to work his way back to the front. He needed a late pass of Jeff Burton to finish third, right behind Edwards.
“I wasn’t going to give him the spot. He earned it and he got it,” Burton said.
It was a critical pass, as it picked up another point for Stewart and kept his deficit at three points.
“We had an awesome day. We came up two spots shy. I don’t know how you could have asked for a better day,” he said. “We led the most laps, we were on the same pace we were last week, just to have a perfect day. Just fought as hard as we could all day.”
Edwards did, too, despite having to chase Stewart most of the race. He’s not faltered once with the two-time champion bearing down on him, and he’ll go to Homestead with his first Cup championship in reach.
Edwards is a two-time Homestead winner and drives for Roush Fenway Racing, which has won seven of the last nine races at Homestead. Stewart, trying to become the first owner/driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the championship, won the first two Cup races at Homestead in 1999 and 2000.
“It’s the best points battle I’ve been a part of at this level, so it’s fun for me,” Edwards said. “I still don’t understand why we’re both running so good. It’s pretty neat. Seems like subconsciously we’re both able to dig down and our teams are able to give us what we need and everybody has been performing at a high level.
“It’s been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us.”
Sunday officially marked the end of Johnson’s reign: He finished 14th and was mathematically eliminated from title contention.
“It’s been one hell of a run,” he posted on Twitter shortly after the race.
Kahne, meanwhile, won for the first time since Atlanta in 2009, and it comes in his next-to-last race with Red Bull Racing. He’s moving to Hendrick Motorsports next season, and Red Bull is pulling out of NASCAR.
His win was only the second for Red Bull, which came into NASCAR in 2007 amid much fanfare but never delivered.
Kahne, who won in a brand new car, said it’s a shame Red Bull is leaving.
“I wouldn’t say there’s anyone out there that’s building better cars at this time. The Red Bull guys are doing an awesome job and they haven’t given up,” he said. “It’s tough to hear it’s shutting down in eight days. Over the last three months, you have one of the top five cars in NASCAR shutting down and that’s crazy.”
Burton finished fourth and was followed by Ryan Newman.
AJ Allmendinger was sixth, and David Reutimann, told two weeks ago he was losing his job at Michael Waltrip Racing, was seventh.
Marcos Ambrose finished eighth and was followed by Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.
Kyle Busch, racing again after NASCAR parked him at Texas last weekend for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr., worked his way up to third before his engine failed. He finished 36th.
“It’s just devastating,” Busch said. “To go through turmoil like this, all you can do is group together and pull through it and try to persevere and move on.”
Busch, who started the Chase tied with Kevin Harvick as the top seed, will almost certainly finish 12th in the final standings and won’t be included in the season-ending awards ceremony held in his hometown, Las Vegas.
His older brother, Kurt, didn’t fare any better at Phoenix. He ran out of gas while leading, was flagged for speeding on pit road during his stop to get fuel, and wound up 22nd.
“What an unbelievable turn of events,” Kurt Busch said. “We worked our butts off all race trying to get track position and just couldn’t cash our ticket in late in the race.”
The race was also marked by another incident between Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth, who tangled two races ago at Martinsville. Kenseth was wrecked when Vickers ran into the back of him, an act Kenseth called deliberate. He also wondered why NASCAR didn’t punish Vickers the way Kyle Busch was at Texas.
“You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out and they (NASCAR) do nothing about it,” Kenseth said. “It was so premeditated it just surprises me that they didn’t do anything. I am disappointed but I expected it.”
Vickers denied it was intentional.
“If he wants to doubt us, that’s fine,” Vickers said. “He wrecked me at Martinsville, he got wrecked here, but it actually wasn’t (payback). I’m not saying I wasn’t going to pay him back, but I’m just saying that wasn’t it.”