Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Phoenix race turned on pit roadSunday Notebook: Even though he's the reigning Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski gets a special thrill beating five-time champ Jimmie Johnson at anything.
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Getting off pit road first under caution on Lap 238 made all the difference in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500, the way both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards saw it.
Edwards was first out of the pits and went on to win the race. Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet was second off pit road and faded to fifth at the finish.
When David Gilliland blew a tire and hit the wall on Lap 236—the sixth blown right front tire of the race—Earnhardt led the field to pit road for tires and fuel two laps later. He and Edwards rolled down pit road side by side, but Earnhardt had to check up to avoid hitting the Ford of Casey Mears, which was blocking his progress.
"Well, I hate to be frustrated at Phoenix, but I think we are," Earnhardt said. "We had a real good car. We feel like we could have finished better than fifth, maybe won the race. Just didn't get the breaks on pit road. We kind of got boxed in. ...
"I think we could have beat him off pit road, but somebody (Mears) was pulling in their stall in front of us, and I just had to lift and give the spot to the No. 99 (Edwards). That was the race, in my opinion, and we almost had it won right there."
Edwards had a similar view of the situation.
"First of all, I think we came onto pit road fourth, something like that," Edwards said. "We came out first. I was in front of Dale. He must have had the timing lines figured out really well because I was at the max speed I could go, and he shot up there, and I thought, 'Man, I can't go any faster; I'm going to get a penalty.'
"Then Casey was up there, and I thought, I'm not exactly sure how this is going to work out, and then he turned left and Dale could have run me up into the wall and spun Casey out. I could tell he thought about it. I mean, I think he did because there was that little pause, and I thought, he's going to do it.
"And then he stood on the brakes and kept from tearing all the cars up. That had to be very difficult for him, because I think we all knew right then that was the...that could be the race."
Edwards sped away at the restart on Lap 243 and never looked back, leading the final 78 laps.
BOLD MOVE PAYS FOR HAMLIN
On the final lap—the fourth overtime circuit—of Sunday's race, Denny Hamlin saw an opportunity to take advantage of a second-place battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
At the exit of Turn 2, Hamlin darted down to the apron, cutting across the unique dogleg on the backstretch, as Johnson and Keselowski were battling side by side. Hamlin returned to the banking at the entry to Turn 3.
Though Johnson got back past Hamlin before the finish, Hamlin held off Keselowski for third and, as he put it, "overachieved" at Phoenix.
"I wasn't concerned too much, because as far down as I was, I was committed," Hamlin said of the move that gained him a position. "There was nothing I was going to do that was going to back out. I just hoped that I would have slid in front of the 48 (Johnson), but then you risk getting punted and spun and your whole day you worked everything for gets taken away in a corner.
"I held my line and really thought I did the right thing to give those guys still an opportunity to pass me back, and obviously one of them did."
JOHNSON DOESN'T MIND BEING A TARGET
Even though he's the reigning Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski gets a special thrill beating five-time champ Jimmie Johnson at anything.
Johnson doesn't mind being viewed as the standard that others seek to top. He considers it a sign of respect.
"I'm well aware that with the success that I've had over the last eight or 10 years that there's a lot of bull's eyes on me," Johnson said, then followed with a quip. "I'm kind of afraid to sleep at night sometimes.
"I know those guys are all gunning for me, and that's a huge honor, it really is, to have the garage and then the reigning champion thinking that way about me."