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, respectively, 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 on Sunday at Homestead, Fla.
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 postrace news conference.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead heat going in there,” Stewart said. “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 came 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.
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.CHASE STANDINGS
Pos. Driver Points
1. Carl Edwards 2,359
2. Tony Stewart 2,356
3. Kevin Harvick 2,308
4. Brad Keselowski 2,294
5. Jimmie Johnson 2,291
6. Matt Kenseth 2,289
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,257
8. Kurt Busch 2,252
9. Ryan Newman 2,252
10. Denny Hamlin 2,249
11. Jeff Gordon 2,247
12. Kyle Busch 2,224