Carl Edwards takes backseat to Chase

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- The images at Phoenix International Raceway late Sunday afternoon said all you needed to know about how the Chase stands with one race remaining.

There was crew chief Chad Knaus stepping outside the hauler of four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, taking a deep breath and then grinning about his decision to gamble on fuel mileage.

There was crew chief Mike Ford standing in Denny Hamlin's hauler with a look of disgust as he went over fuel-mileage charts for more than 20 minutes with team owner Joe Gibbs, and Hamlin tossing a water bottle in the direction of his car as he simmered on pit road about what could have been.

There was crew chief Gil Martin standing outside of Kevin Harvick's hauler lamenting having to come back down pit road a second time because of a missing lug nut, but smiling about the ensuing rally.

Add all the images together and we've got one heck of a three-team showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Here's how it all unfolded on a day when Carl Edwards ended a 70-race losing streak:

Sorry, Carl. But when you have the tightest Chase margin with one race remaining -- Hamlin is 15 up on Johnson and 46 ahead of Harvick -- in the short history of the format, winning the race takes a backseat.

Let's start with Hamlin. He led a race-high 190 laps but had to pit for fuel and right-side tires with 14 laps to go. He had no choice because, as Ford later said, he was at least six to seven laps short, and when you have the points lead the first priority is to protect it.

Hamlin finished 12th on a day when he appeared ready to bury the competition.

"I'm frustrated, trust me," Hamlin said. "This is one of the bigger letdowns I've had."

Johnson, not known as a great fuel-mileage driver, did gamble and came out with a fifth-place finish that felt like a win to him and the man who made the decision to roll the dice.

"It was pretty exciting, I'm not going to lie," Knaus said. "It got us back in the game. Now we can go to Homestead toe-to-toe and see what happens."

Harvick had moved to fifth with 90 laps remaining when he had to come down pit road a second time because of a mistake by the left-rear tire changer. Although he rallied to finish sixth, the team was left with that what-could-have-been feeling.

But they didn't leave feeling beaten.

"I feel we're better than both of them," Martin said of Hamlin's and Johnson's teams.

We'll find out on Sunday in South Florida. This is the Chase NASCAR needed with ratings and attendance sagging, with fans tired of seeing Johnson dominating the series like nobody has before and nobody may after.

As bad as Hamlin and Ford feel, the sport needed a winner-take-all scenario in the finale, something we haven't seen since Johnson got on his championship roll in 2006.

"The battle on top of the point standings is good for the sport," said Edwards, whose last win was the finale at Homestead in 2008. "There are going to be some really happy people and some really, really not happy people at Homestead."

And for the record, Edwards still likes Johnson.

"He's been through this kind of pressure a number of times and been able to perform, so I think he's the guy to beat," Edwards said. "But with everything that can happen in a 400-mile race at Homestead, it's going to be an amazing race."

It may not have been had the cautions not fallen wrong for Hamlin. He would have finished no worse than second and possibly cruised to the win, although Ford said Edwards had the better car after a final adjustment.

Had that occurred, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver would have had one of those last-race scenarios in which he only had to finish somewhere around 10th or better no matter what Johnson or Harvick did.

Now the top three drivers will be going for a win just as in 2004, when Kurt Busch won the title by eight over Johnson and 16 over Jeff Gordon.

They'll be on edge and so will their crew chiefs, whose calls will be just as critical as those on this sun-splashed Sunday.

"You always want to be the guy that makes the 3-point shot or the half-court shot at the buzzer to win the game or kick the winning field goal or whatever it is," Knaus said. "This is the opportunity for either one these teams."

In Ford's defense, he did the right thing, particularly since he wasn't close on fuel mileage. Had he gambled as Knaus did and failed, he would have undone all that he and Hamlin have worked for this season.

His biggest concern now is making sure fuel mileage, which has been a problem for his team all year, doesn't bite him at Homestead.

"When you're leading, you're in a vulnerable situation," Ford said. "Mileage was absolutely horrible for that. When caution fell I was, 'Here we go.' When the caution came out we were 14 laps short. When the second came out we were still six to seven laps short.

"I feel like we made the most out of that situation to maintain the points lead."

The battle on top of the point standings is good for the sport. There are going to be some really happy people and some really, really not happy people at Homestead.

-- Carl Edwards

Knaus made the right decision as well. His team entered the day 33 points out and couldn't afford to fall further behind going to a track where Hamlin is the defending champion.

And in truth, it wasn't that big of a gamble. Johnson was only a half lap short before the first caution that allowed him to conserve.

"I hate it for those guys," Knaus said of Hamlin's team. "They definitely had the best car."

OK, so Knaus probably doesn't hate it. He loves being in this position, particularly a week after Ford said his decision to swap pit crews with teammate Jeff Gordon's team during the race at Texas Motor Speedway was an act of desperation.

For the record, the swap that was made permanent on Monday was huge. Johnson either maintained or picked up spots on every pit stop. Gordon, who finished 11th with Johnson's old crew, had a few setbacks.

"The guys really stepped up in a very tough situation and did their job and, truthfully, their good pit stops kept us up front all day long because we struggled a bit on track," said Johnson, who was 18 points behind Busch going to Homestead in 2004.

Johnson was smiling.

Images. They said all you needed to know as the sun set over this 1-mile track in the desert.

At the end of next Sunday, there will be more that will do the same. One team will be celebrating the title and the other two will disappear into the offseason wondering what they could have done differently.

"It's fun," said Ford, putting a positive spin on the day. "That's why they narrowed it down to 10 races, right? If you start the season and said, 'Man, give us a 15-point lead going into Homestead,' you'd be happy.

"Here it is."

Sit back and enjoy the images to come.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.