AVONDALE, Ariz. – Carl Edwards climbed from his car, stood on the door and landed a backflip near the finish line. He then hopped up on the wall in front of the grandstand, grabbed the checkered flag and waded into the crowd, trading high-fives with fans.
After a miserable week at Daytona, Edwards had plenty to celebrate.
That it came at Phoenix International Raceway only seemed fitting.
Coming through on his promise to dominate after his Daytona disaster, Edwards pulled away on a late restart and snapped a 70-race winless streak Sunday, the second long drought he’s ended at Phoenix.
“This win feels as good or better as any win I’ve ever had,” Edwards said.
Edwards had a rough 2012 season, missing the Chase for the championship. His downward spiral continued at Daytona, where he wrecked five cars. On his way out of Florida, Edwards said he was ready to dominate and win at Phoenix.
He did just that, leading the final 78 laps on the 312-lap race around PIR’s odd-shaped oval in the first non-restrictor-plate race with NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car.
Edwards got a good push from defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski on the restart with two laps left and pulled away from there, winning for the first time since Las Vegas in 2011.
After parking his car at the finish line, Edwards landed his first backflip in nearly two years and celebrated with the fans – just like he did at PIR after ending another 70-race winless streak in 2010.
“I’m sure it’s a relief for someone like Carl,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished third and had a long winless streak end at Phoenix last year. “He’s now relevant again, he really is and it’s a good sign for their race team for things to come.”
The big duel came behind Edwards.
Despite struggling with his car most of the day, Hamlin made a bold move on the last lap with a pass on the apron below the dogleg. He popped up alongside Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson and the two drag-raced to the finish, where Johnson edged him by a few inches.
Keselowski, who was outside Johnson during Hamlin’s move, finished fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended up fifth.
“As far down as I was, I was committed, there was nothing that I was going to do where I would back out,” Hamlin said. “I just hoped I would have just slid in front of the 48, then you risk getting punted and spun, and your whole day you’ve worked everything for is taken away in a corner. I held my line and thought I really did the right thing and gave those guys room to pass me back – and one of them did.”
The last Phoenix race, in November, set up Keselowski for his first Sprint Cup title after Johnson blew a tire. It also featured quite a sideshow.
A running feud between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon boiled over late in the race, setting off a brawl in the pits and Bowyer on a WWE-style dash to Gordon’s hauler.
The drivers tried to downplay the confrontation after arriving in the desert this week, but it’s been hard to avoid, with video of the scrap-and-dash being shown all over in promos for the race and replays.
Ryan Newman had the only dash this time around, running across the track and away from his car after it blew a right-front tire for the second time in 140 laps.
Inside his car, Mark Martin failed in his bid to become the oldest Sprint Cup winner.
The 54-year-old became the second-oldest driver to start on the pole in a Sprint Cup car, a few months short of Harry Gant’s mark. Martin led the first 49 laps and 26 more later on, but couldn’t sustain it in his bid to become the oldest Sprint Cup winner, finishing 21st.
“Obviously, it’s a disappointing result for a great effort on the weekend,” Martin said. “The car was pretty fast, but we had multiple problems today.”
So did Danica Patrick, who had a rough follow-up to her breakthrough week at the Daytona 500.
Patrick became the first woman to win a pole and lead green-flag laps during NASCAR’s season opener, sending her popularity to a new level.
But she couldn’t stay with the leaders at Phoenix, ending her day with one of the hardest hits of her career. It happened with about 100 laps left, when the right-front tire on Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet went down and slammed her into the wall.
Patrick’s car careened back into David Ragan, flipping her hood over the windshield and shredding the left front fender as protective foam from the driver’s side door flew onto the track.
She came to a stop along the inside wall with a trail of debris covering about half the home straightaway behind her. She climbed from the car and was quickly cleared by the medical center.
“Whenever those right-fronts go, they always hit hard because you don’t broadside, you hit more straight on,” said Patrick, who finished 39th. “It took a hard hit both sides and I’m fine, so NASCAR is doing a good job at safety. But no real good warning. The car wasn’t all that tight and most of the (problems) were in the rear, so there was no real vibration that told me that was going to happen.”
Edwards set himself up for this victory with a late-night call to new crew chief Jimmy Fennig, knocking on his door around midnight Saturday to go over some last-minute details. For race morning, Edwards went for a hike to clear his mind and focused.
It paid off, ending two years of frustration and self-doubt that grew as the streak grew.
“Last year we didn’t even make the Chase,” Edwards said. “For me to sit home while everybody was at the Chase stuff and in Vegas, that was a little bit of a shock to me and I did not like that at all. To get a victory puts us in better position to be in the Chase, it just feels good to win and I’m just very glad to be here.”