AVONDALE, Ariz. — As Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have gone round-for-round in their race for the Sprint Cup title, Kasey Kahne has turned his performance up a notch outside of the championship spotlight.
Kahne's performance the past nine weeks has trailed only the two title contenders, and on Sunday, he finally got a win.
Kahne snapped an 81-race winless streak with his victory in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, where Edwards and Stewart finished second and third, respectively, to keep the title race tight headed into next weekend's season finale.
Edwards kept his three-point lead over Stewart into the 36th and final race next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, marking the closest championship battle since the Chase for the Championship format made its debut in 2004.
The two were nearly giddy discussing the title race as they sat side-by-side in the postrace news conference.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a dead heat going in there," said Stewart. "I want to go to Homestead tomorrow and start. I want tomorrow to be Friday. I'm pumped up, I'm excited about it and ready to go."
So was Edwards.
"This is going to be a battle. I truly believe it's going to be a good race," Edwards said. "That place is magical for us. I really enjoy going there. I hope it comes down to the fastest guy winning the race."
Sunday also marked the end of Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as Chase champion: He finished 14th and was mathematically eliminated from title contention.
"It's been one hell of a run," he posted on Twitter shortly after the race.
Stewart, winner of four Chase races this season, dominated Sunday at Phoenix and led 160 of 312 laps. But he had to pit for gas with 18 laps left, and had to work back to the front. He needed a late pass of Jeff Burton to finish third, right behind Edwards.
"I wasn't going to give him the spot. He earned it, and he got it," Burton said.
Stewart earned a bonus point for leading the most laps, keeping his margin the same.
"We had an awesome day. We came up two spots shy. I don't know how you could have asked for a better day," he said. "We led the most laps, we were on the same pace we were last week, just to have a perfect day."
Edwards got the result he needed after having to chase Stewart most of the race. Now he holds the edge with his first Cup championship in reach.
Edwards is a two-time Homestead winner and drives for Roush Fenway Racing, which has won seven of the past nine races on the 1½-mile oval.
"It's the best points battle I've been a part of at this level, so it's fun for me," Edwards said. " …It's been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us."
Zephyrhills' David Reutimann, told two weeks ago he was losing his job at Michael Waltrip Racing, was seventh. Kyle Busch, racing again after NASCAR parked him at Texas last weekend for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday, was third before his engine failed. He finished 36th.