Jimmie Johnson didn't have the fastest car in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway -- at the end of the day, race winner and pole-sitter Carl Edwards did.
Johnson, the four-time defending Cup Series champion, didn't lead a lap. Denny Hamlin, ahead in the points and seeking his first title, led a race-high 190 laps.
Ultimately, none of that mattered. Short on fuel at the end of a race he had dominated, Hamlin short-pitted with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on Lap 298 of 312, while Edwards, Johnson and Kevin Harvick were conserving fuel after pit stops under caution on Lap 224.
All three won their gambles, and Hamlin, who finished 12th, saw his lead over second-place Johnson shrink from 33 points to 15 entering next Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick is third in the standings, 46 points behind Hamlin.
Edwards crossed the finish line 4.77 seconds ahead of runner-up Ryan Newman to break a winless streak of 70 races, dating to Homestead in November 2008. Edwards squeezed 88 laps out of his last tank of gas to win for the 17th time in his career, completing a sweep of a weekend that also included a victory in Saturday's Nationwide Series race.
Joey Logano and Greg Biffle finished third and fourth, respectively, followed by Johnson and Harvick. Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray completed the top 10.
"Everybody made it on fuel -- is that what you're telling me?" Hamlin radioed to crew chief Mike Ford after learning he had finished 12th.
"Good job today, man," Ford replied. "I know that was ugly. That's something we've got to work on."
"What do we have to work on?" Hamlin asked.
"Mileage was awful," Ford told him.
Indeed it was. Ford told Hamlin he was 12 laps short on fuel after the pit stop on Lap 224. Contrast that to Edwards, who raced Hamlin hard and passed him for the lead on Lap 266 and made it to the end of the race despite conserving fuel for only half of the last green-flag run.
"I wasn't sure exactly what our status was," Edwards said. "I don't think [crew chief] Bob [Osborne] wanted to say it over the radio, or he just didn't want to tell me, but I didn't know what was going on. I thought we were 12 [laps] short, and the caution came out [on Lap 234], so I thought we were maybe six short or something like that.
"So when they dropped the green [on Lap 240], I started racing pretty hard, and I felt like I was a little faster than Denny, but then I realized, 'Maybe he's saving a little fuel, so I better save some.' So I was saving. And then Kyle was falling back even farther behind me, and I thought, 'OK, these guys are all saving fuel,' and then Bob started telling me lap times, so I thought, 'Why is he telling me lap times? Maybe he wants me to race here.'
"We had to establish the fact that he wanted me to race them, so that's when I drove by Denny. ... I only saved fuel for about half of that last run."
Even as he was in gas-conservation mode inside his car, Johnson recognized the magnitude of his gamble. Failure meant the end to his hopes for a fifth title.
"If we ran out, yeah, we would have lost the chance to be the champions," Johnson said. "But that kind of left my mind, and I really started focusing on what I needed to do to save gas. Really tried to eliminate my thoughts, any negative thoughts in my mind. Just save fuel ... what I needed to do on the race track to save fuel.
"Before I knew it, the laps went by pretty quick -- worked themselves down to the white flag. Once I came off of Turn 2 and down the back, I felt pretty good I'd make it to the start/finish line ahead of the 11 [Hamlin].
"My emotions tried to get the best of me. I was on the edge of my seat, but I kept talking myself off the ledge."