Well, it happened again.
Much like the 58th Daytona 500 to start the Sprint Cup Series season three weeks ago, the victory came down to inches.
This time, it was Kevin Harvick edging Carl Edwards to the line by 0.010 seconds to win at Phoenix International Raceway for the eighth time in his career and fifth time in the last six races in the deserts of Arizona.
“That was not the car I wanted to see behind me,” Harvick said of Edwards, who finished second after the pair beat and banged their cars coming to the finish line.
The race was sure to be Harvick’s when the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet crossed the line for six laps to go in the Good Sam 500. However, a cut tire for Kasey Kahne brought pit strategy into the mix, bringing a majority of the top runners to pit lane for two tires.
The No. 4 team chose to stay out for the two-lap restart while Edwards charged hard with two fresh tires.
“I knew [Edwards] was better through [turns] 3 and 4,” Harvick said. “I tried to protect the bottom in 3 and 4 and just missed the bottom with all the rubber build up on the tires. All in all, I knew I was going to be on defense down there. I got up too high and wasn’t able to stay on the bottom like I wanted to. And then he got into me, which he should’ve. I knew I needed to get a good run off the corner and I was going to have to get into his door and it worked out just barely.”
Driving hard into turn 3, Edwards made contact with Harvick in the left-rear corner, setting the stage for a Darlington 2003-esque, paint-trading finish.
“I thought ‘Man, I’ll just move him out of the way and get by,’” Edwards said. “I just didn’t move him far enough and he got up to the door and I thought – I was trying to time it – I think he’s going to beat me.”
Edwards was among the quickest cars throughout the 313-mile event, leading 65 laps from the second starting position. But the bid for a third Phoenix win came up oh-so-short.
“I tried to side-swipe him before he got [to the start-finish line], but I needed to be in front of his front tire,” Edwards continued. “Man, I wish we could’ve won that thing.”
Joe Gibbs Racing, despite the narrow defeat, had a strong day in the desert after sweeping the top three qualifying spots on Friday. Behind Edwards was Denny Hamlin in third and Kyle Busch, who had a car quick enough to lead the field for 75 laps, in fourth.
“[The car] was good enough to lead a bunch of laps early in the race,” Busch said after an eighth straight top-5 finish. “And then as the track began to rubber in as the runs got longer, we seemed to fade a little bit more and more each time. We definitely have to work on some long-run stuff.”
A troubled pit stop on lap 165 forced Busch to restart 16th, leading to a gallant drive up through the top 10 just in time for the final caution.
“I screwed us up on pit road there,” he said. “Definitely got us behind the eight ball for a little while but we were able to rebound through that, get ourselves back up front into position.”
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was the next victim on lap 164, ending a respectable start to the 2016 campaign.
“Had to use too much brake and I feel like we got the tire too hot and just blew it,” Stenhouse said.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was once again a happy customer of the low-downforce package, leading 34 laps toward another top-5 finish. He joined Harvick and Austin Dillon as the brave men to stay out under the final caution flag.
“I would’ve loved to have the top so I could get them guys on the bottom and hold them down,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t care about the call, I don’t dislike the call to stay out. We had an awesome car and that’s three weeks in a row I enjoyed the hell out of driving it. Had a fun day.”
The top 10 finishers includes plenty of young talent, with Chase Elliott earning a second top 10 in the past three races and Austin Dillon with a third in four races this year, along with Ryan Blaney with back-to-back top-10 efforts for the Wood Brothers.
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