FORT WORTH, Texas - Carl Edwards first outran everybody in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday. Then, he and crew chief Bob Osborne outfoxed them.
Edwards nursed his final fuel load for 69 laps - 103.5 miles - to rally after falling behind on pit strategy and won for the second straight weekend and the eighth time this year. He had clearly dominated the race early.
"I've never had Bob yell at me for going too fast, but he did tonight," Edwards said, referring to his crew chief. "I was just so nervous he was missing something. I just thought there was no way we could go that slow and save that much fuel and still be leading the race."
But that's precisely how it worked out, and Edwards' victory - combined with Jimmie Johnson's finish in 15th, one lap down - allowed Edwards to whack 77 points off Johnson's lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings.
Johnson now leads by 106 points with two races remaining, but there will certainly be less talk leading up to Phoenix next weekend that a third straight title for Johnson is a done deal.
"I feel good about it," Edwards said. "I feel satisfied we took a chunk out of his lead. I think that's a good shot in the arm for all of our guys to show that we can go out and perform well enough to win this thing."
For much of the afternoon and early evening, there was very little doubt that Edwards was going to be good enough to win this race and complete a season sweep of Cup races at Texas. His No. 99 Ford led 199 of the first 263 laps - sometimes by nearly 10 seconds - and was not about to be touched as long as Edwards could keep it out front in clean air.
But things turned on Lap 263 when a battle for territory on the race track between Juan Pablo Montoya and David Gilliland turned ugly.
Gilliland claimed Montoya had jacked his rear wheels off the ground twice and that he then "misjudged" as he tried to let Montoya go coming off Turn 2. Montoya said Gilliland "just wrecked us." NASCAR agreed and parked Gilliland for the rest of the race.
Montoya's wrecked car was stuck at the entrance to the garage, still on pit road, when the leaders came in for pit stops. Six cars beat Edwards' back onto the track, some of them getting two tires while Edwards took for. After the leaders cleared pit lane, NASCAR waited until Montoya's car was out of the way to let the lapped cars pit.
The race restarted on Lap 270 with Jamie McMurray leading Clint Bowyer and Edwards back in seventh.
Johnson, who struggled so badly in the early going that he got lapped on Lap 96 and was just never able to make it up, said he expected to see Edwards rip through traffic and get back to the lead. When Edwards didn't, Johnson said he assumed Edwards and Osborne were up to something.
"I thought, 'Maybe his car isn't working right,' " Johnson said. "But I really think they were saving fuel. They were playing that card. ... I don't think they were swinging for the fences. I think they're a little more calculated with it than that."
Edwards said Osborne first gave him conflicting signals about conserving fuel. Edwards and members of the team were making sure their numbers were right, and before long they had picked a strategy. Edwards was far enough ahead of anybody else who might try to go the distance that he could back way off and save fuel.
"It was not a blind decision," Osborne said. "We had a lot of data to back it up. It's not like it was a whim. It was made with a lot of conversation and analysis."
If Edwards hadn't been so far behind in points, or if he'd been ahead, Osborne said he would not have tried it. Only two others did. Jeff Gordon made it and finished second, ahead of Jamie McMurray, who was first among those making late stops but just third overall.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel with about six laps left and finished 20th.
Edwards now has as many wins as anyone this year - he tied Kyle Busch with his eight win. He's finished first twice, second once and third three times in the Chase, but he trails because of a 29th at Talladega and a 33rd at Charlotte.
Johnson's 15th-place finish Sunday was his worst in this year's Chase.
"We messed up," Johnson said. "We just didn't have it. ... We didn't do the job we needed to today. ...If I lose five, 10 or 20 points at a time because they win and I finish fourth or fifth I can handle that. But to go out there and not performthat's the part I'm frustrated with."
Edwards has now made up 92 points on Johnson the past two weeks. To catch Johnson he'll have to pick up even that pace at Phoenix and Homestead.
"It's great to be surrounded by guys this intelligent and this driven to win," he said. "For them to come up with a plan to win like they did today, to do that in real time in the heat of the moment, that is cool."
Team owner Jack Roush is ready to roll, too.
"Momentum," Roush said, "is a wonderful thing."