NASCAR: Kahne wins Phoenix race
By Jenna Fryer
AVONDALE, Ariz. ó 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.
Kahneís 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 weekendís season finale.
ěIf Iím in a racecar, I want to do the best that I can,î Kahne said, crediting crew chief Kenny Francis for giving him strong Toyotas that have allowed him ěto perform with and run with Carl and Tony, who have been probably the two best.î
Theyíve 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.
ěAs far as Iím concerned, itís a dead heat going in there,î said Stewart. ěI want to go to Homestead tomorrow and start. I want tomorrow to be Friday. Iím pumped up, Iím excited about it and ready to go.î
So was Edwards.
ěThis is going to be a battle. I truly believe itís going to be a good race,î Edwards said. ěThat place is magical for us. I really enjoy going there. I hope it comes down to the fastest guy winning the race.î
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.
ěI wasnít going to give him the spot. He earned it and he got it,î Burton said.
It was a critical pass, as it picked up another point for Stewart and kept his deficit at three points.
ěWe had an awesome day. We came up two spots shy. I donít know how you could have asked for a better day,î he said. ěWe 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.î
Edwards did, too, despite having to chase Stewart most of the race. Heís not faltered once with the two-time champion bearing down on him, and heíll 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.
ěItís the best points battle Iíve been a part of at this level, so itís fun for me,î Edwards said. ěI still donít understand why weíre both running so good.
ěItís pretty neat. Seems like subconsciously weíre 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.
ěItís been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us.î
Sunday officially marked the end of Johnsonís reign: He finished 14th and was mathematically eliminated from title contention.
ěItís been one hell of a run,î 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. Heís 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 itís a shame Red Bull is leaving.