Chase winding down in the desert as Hamlin leads going to Homestead

By Joe Dunn

    As the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams arrived for work Sunday morning at Phoenix International Raceway, for the Kobalt Tools 500, they were greeted by something familiar from home on the east coast.  The garage opened this morning at 7AM local time as the sun was barely visible and the thermometer was hovering at the 40 degree mark.  But by the time the green flag dropped at 2:18 PM we were all reminded that we are here in the desert with a bright sun and 70 degrees.  This was ideal weather for the fans and the teams alike, except of course for the #71 team and driver Brendan Gaughan.  On the second lap, Gaughan had a right front tire go down sending him into the outside wall with heavy damage.  The TRG crew worked on the #71 car, but the front end damage was too severe for them to fix. The car was loaded up and readied to limp back home.
    The angels were not looking over Brad Keselowski either as he cut down a right front tire on lap 58 sending the #12 Dodge into the outside wall resulting in heavy damage.  After being treated and released from the infield care center, Brad headed to the garage to watch his crew working feverishly to rebuild the right front of his car.
    On lap 101 with Denny Hamlin leading the race, the third caution of the day came out for debris.  Seems that an errant water bottle splashed all over Jimmie Johnson’s windshield.  As the field pitted  the top 5 were Edwards, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart.  It was speculated that Jamie McMurray was the guilty water bottle thrower, but he did get that needed lucky dog to put him back on the lead lap. Hamlin wasted no time retaking the lead from Edwards after the restart.
    By lap 200 the #12 team had given up the battle and loaded up the car for the long ride home.  The result for Brad Keselowski will be a 42nd place finish, heading into the final race. On the track, Denny Hamlin continued to pace the field under green until the caution flew one more time on lap 222 as Robby Gordon spun in turn three.  In the ensuing pit stops, Kyle Busch and his crew outperformed the 11 crew and took over the lead. Harvick was forced to return to pit road for a missing lug nut which resulted in restarting 18th.
    On the restart, Hamlin rocketed past Kyle to retake the lead.  On lap 223 it was Hamlin, Edwards, Busch, Johnson and Newman rounding out the top five.  The green flag run was short lived as Travis Kvapil spun out on the front stretch on lap 235.  On lap 266 Carl Edwards squeezes past Hamlin to retake the lead, and two laps later Edwards has an 8/10th second lead over Hamlin. Montoya passes Jimmie Johnson for fourth and Ryan Newman joins in passing JJ for 5th place.   By lap 278 Harvick had worked his way up to 12th and was threatening.
    With 22 laps to go, Hamlin was looking for a caution, constantly telling his spotter there was debris.  Obviously NASCAR and many of the other teams saw no debris, in addition Johnson was too short of fuel to make it.  Meanwhile Gil Martin had told was  Harvick he had just enough gas to finish the 312 laps.  On lap 296 Chad Knaus was telling JJ to start conserving fuel.  Jimmie asked how much and Chad told him that he would tell him how fast to drive.
    On lap 300 Hamlin could wait no more and was forced to pit, barely able to return to the lead lap.  Meanwhile Edwards continued his charge up front while Johnson was slowing and holding onto 5th place.  Harvick moved up to 7th and Chad ordered JJ to cut all the fans and not use the brakes at all.  With 5 laps to go Johnson was told to do whatever to keep Harvick behind him, as Johnson slipped to 6th with Harvick right behind him.
    On the final lap, Montoya runs out of gas as Edwards wins the Kobalt Tools 500, with Ryan Newman 2nd , Logano 3rd with Johnson and Harvick finishing top 5.  Denny Hamlin finished 12th while Montoya managed to finish on the lead lap in 16th place.
    As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to their final race at Homestead, Denny Hamlin leads the Championship points 15 points ahead of Johnson, with Harvick 3rd, 46 points behind Johnson.