AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It might have been the result of a game of "cat and mouse" as crew chief Steve Letarte said, but it got his driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the lead.
And on a track where passing seemed difficult and lead changes were often determined by what took place along pit road, being out front was crucial.
Earnhardt Jr. led 47 laps in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the second stop for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. Had he won the race off pit road during a caution on Lap 238, he might have led more. Including the all-important final one.
But he didn't; Carl Edwards did. And Edwards, riding a 70-race winless streak, came out of PIR with the victory. Earnhardt Jr. took little solace in a fifth-place finish, enough to keep him second in the series' points standings.
The two drivers were racing off pit road, Earnhardt Jr. appeared to have the advantage, and then the car of Casey Mears slowed to enter his pit stall, blocking Earnhardt Jr.'s progress and leaving Edwards to win the race back onto the track.
"I hate to be frustrated at Phoenix, but I think we are," Earnhardt Jr. said of his Hendrick Motorsports team. "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.
"I just had to lift and give the spot to the 99 (of Edwards). That was the race in my opinion, and we almost had it won right there."
Earnhardt Jr. had qualified 21st, but made his way inside the top 10 by Lap 120 of the 316-lap race. He was able to stay there for the remainder of the race, eventually taking the lead at Lap 192 during a round of pit stops under the day's sixth caution.
When the yellow flew once again at Lap 311, fuel concerns among the leaders intensified. A green-white-checkered finish could erase a full day's worth of hard work.
"We were playing cat-and-mouse with all the crew chiefs on pit road all day about how much fuel you took each stop," Letarte said. "I knew (Edwards) took more than us the stop before because that's how we got the lead. So we basically just put as much fuel in as we could until they were next to us on pit road and we left, trying to race them around the corner."
Mears, however, was the unexpected player. "He was doing nothing wrong," Letarte said. "He still had to go into his stall, and we had to check up because of him. That was basically the race for us."
Edwards, who entered pit road fourth, said he saw Mears' car ahead as he and Earnhardt Jr. were leaving pit road "and I thought, 'I'm not exactly sure how this is going to work out' and (Mears) turned left.
"Dale could have run me up into the wall ? spun Casey out and I could tell he thought about it. 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 that could be the race."
Second a week ago at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. left Phoenix trailing teammate Jimmie Johnson by eight points (90-82). With only one top-10 finish at the 1-mile track in his last six starts, Earnhardt Jr. tried to temper his disappointment at what he considered an opportunity lost.
"We haven't been good here," he said. "So that was a good run for us. I was a little disappointed because I think we could have won. And you hate to give away ? points. And I'd love to get to Victory Lane.
"This is a good sign for us though that we've improved this much at Phoenix. Hopefully it's a sign for the rest of the season and that we're going to be all right."
Letarte said if there was any track where the team could use a top-five finish, "this is definitely it."
Given the fuel concerns, however, he wasn't so sure his driver would be able to come home with a top 10, much less a top five.
"We were scared to death," Letarte said. "The first time the car has been full all day long is right here in post-tech. All day long we left short on gas, that's how we gained our track position."
But, he said, "you don't know how much is in it and ? you don't know what you're getting for mileage. A lot of educated guesses, but I've been wrong with a lot of educated guesses before."
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