Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart entered Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway with three points separating the two NASCAR drivers in the 2011 Chase for the Cup championship. And that's exactly the way things stood after three hours of hard racing on Sunday.
Kasey Kahne of Red Bull Racing came away with the race victory in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix on Sunday, but with a second and third-place finish, Edwards and Stewart separated themselves from the rest of the field and ensured that this year's Sprint Cup crown will come down to the final race of the season next Sunday at Miami-Homestead Speedway
The victory at Phoenix, the ninth stop in the 10-race season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup, was the first win of the season for Kahne, his 12th career victory, and it broke an 81-race winless streak for the Red Bull Racing driver. Kahne's last race win in the Sprint Cup Series was September 2009 at Atlanta.
Jeff Burton finished fourth at Phoenix, and Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, was fifth. The next five spots were claimed by A.J. Allmendinger, David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard and Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer, none of whom qualified for the Chase.
Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., gained a point on Stewart because of his second-place finish, but Stewart led the most laps in Sunday's race, which brought the difference between the two Cup contenders back to where it was at the start of the day.
"We couldn't ask for anything more," Edwards said afterwards about the two-man showdown for all the marbles next Sunday at Miami-Homestead Speedway. "It's going to be fun. I'm sure these guys (Stewart's team) are going to be good down there. They're fast on the mild-and-a-halfs.
"It was a good hard-fought day, and I'm really pumped about Homestead," he said.
A week ago, the bottom three drivers in the points standings were eliminated from Cup contention at Martinsville, and on Sunday, everyone else but Edwards and Stewart were mathematically knocked out of this season's championship hunt. This includes five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who sits fifth in the standings after Sunday. Other Chase qualifiers who were eliminated on Sunday were Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kurt and Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
As in so many Cup races this season, Kahne grabbed his only lead of the day late in the race on Sunday and held on the final 14 laps to secure the win. In so doing, Kahne, who will join the Hendrick Motorsports team next season taking Mark Martin's seat, became the 18th different NASCAR driver to take the checkered flag this year.
And so it's down to two - Edwards and Stewart - with one race remaining to settle the score and crown the 2011 Sprint Cup champion. "Every point is important right now, and that's why we raced Carl so hard and Kasey so hard to make sure we led the most laps," Stewart said in his post-race comments. Stewart led 160 laps at Phoenix on Sunday, the most of any driver.
When asked what he and his Stewart-Haas crew needed to do to win this year's Cup championship, Stewart said: "Just keep doing what we're doing. We're going to keep the pressure on him (Edwards), and we're going to make him sweat it out."
The owner-driver of the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet laid down the gauntlet two weeks ago after his victory at Martinsville, the third of his four Chase wins this fall, declaring that if Edwards was not worried about holding onto his lead in the standings, he should be. Through two more races since that time, Edwards has successfully warded off first and third-place finishes by Stewart at Texas and Phoenix, respectively.
As far as history goes, both Edwards and Stewart have two career wins at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Edwards' two wins have come in seven starts, while Stewart's two race victories have been in 12 previous starts at the season's finale venue.
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