Carl Edwards played the game better than anyone else did Sunday. Edwards took the lead with 25 laps to go Sunday and held off Jeff Gordon to score his first career victory on a road course in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winning the Toyota Save-Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Edwards made the winning move with a pit stop on lap 60 that allowed him to stay out when most of the leaders pitted on lap 71. From there Edwards was able to stay near the front and took the lead on lap 85 from Marcos Ambrose on a restart on lap 85. He survived another restart on lap 95 and from there held on for his second win of the season and the 23rd of his career.
“That’s a moment I’ll never forget,” Edwards said. “To be standing in victory lane and to have held off Jeff Gordon with all of the success he’s had here and in our sport. It’s just really, really special. “
Behind Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, a career best on a road course. Jamie McMurray was fourth and Paul Menard fifth.
“I was making some ground up on Carl,” Gordon said. “I was good in the fast sections and he was pretty good in the slow sections. So, I was having to hit everything so perfect. And I just overdrove it into (Turn) 4 one time and went real wide off and that gave him enough of a gap that I had to close it back in and I just couldn’t put enough pressure on him.”
Polesitter McMurray led from the start closely perused by AJ Allmendinger. The two raced side by side swapping the lead. On lap 9 though McMurray gave up the lead to Allmendinger at turn 11.
Brad Keselowski went for a spin in turn 11 after contact from Kyle Busch but was able to keep going. Kevin Harvick moved into third; up front, Allmendinger had stretched out his lead over McMurray to nearly a second. By lap 18, Harvick was up to second and charging to the front.
Green flag pit stops started on lap 21 for those on a three-stop strategy led by Tony Stewart. A lap later, Harvick got underneath Allmendinger for the lead. Allmendinger pitted under green on lap 25.
Landon Cassill lost an engine in turn 11 bringing out the first caution of the day on lap 30. Harvick led with Edwards second and Ryan Newman third. Harvick led the top three in for pit stops on lap 32. When the green came out on lap 34, Allmendinger led with McMurray second, Kyle Larson third, Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson fourth and fifth. Harvick restarted 14th. On the restart lap Earnhardt Jr. fought his way into second. By lap 40 though McMurray was vying for the spot again and retook second. Allmendinger’s lead was nearly 2 seconds. By lap 46 Harvick was up to seventh, by lap 50 he was fifth.
Allmendinger, McMurray and Johnson were nose to tail by lap 52. Gordon joined them in fourth a lap later. Johnson dove into the pits on lap 54. McMurray took the lead in turn 7 on lap 54, Gordon followed for second in turn 11; Harvick took third from Allmendinger a lap later. Harvick took the lead as those in front of him pitted on lap 58.
The second caution came out on lap 60 when Ryan Truex stalled on track. Harvick stayed out as did Clint Bowyer who took over second, Ambrose was third, Brian Vickers fourth with Ryan Newman fifth.
The restart came on lap 65; Ambrose made an aggressive move for second but went off track at turn 7 and fell into fourth behind Vickers. Johnson, who had pitted, was charging towards the front on fresher tires; by lap 64 he was in third, and took over second a lap later. Up front Harvick’s lead was just over three seconds.
The third caution came on lap 71 for debris in turn 10 just after Johnson passed Harvick for the lead in turn 4. The leaders pitted led by Johnson. Johnson led off pit road followed by McMurray, Gordon, McMurray and Vickers. Harvick came out sixth. Up front, Joey Logano, Bowyer, Ambrose, Edwards and Denny Hamlin led those who stayed out.
The restart came on lap 75 and Bowyer was able to grab the top spot by turn 2. The fourth caution came out on the same lap when Matt Kenseth crashed hard in turn 8 after contact from Earnhardt Jr. The green flew again on lap 80 with Bowyer in the lead; Ambrose shot by for the lead followed by Edwards; Bowyer settled into third. Johnson was also charging and was soon in fourth and in third soon after in turn 11; Bowyer spun after contact from McMurray and was hit by Harvick bringing out caution number five.
Ambrose led to the green but Edwards rocketed by for lead followed by McMurray. Allmendinger, who had led 35 laps to that point, made contact with Earnhardt on the restart and was spun. Ambrose was in third, Johnson fourth and Gordon fifth. Caution number six came out on lap 91 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was spun by Vickers on the frontstretch. The top five led by Edwards stayed out.
Edwards led to the green on lap 95 followed by McMurray and Ambrose. Johnson and Gordon rounded out the top five. Edwards was able to take the lead by nearly a second. Earnhardt Jr. who was one of the cars who had pitted on lap 92, took over fifth on lap 98. Gordon had moved into third and was looking to move forward. Earnhardt Jr. moved into fourth. By lap 101 Gordon caught and passed McMurray for second. Gordon was able to catch up on the final lap and made one last stab on the final corner but Edwards was able to pull away for the win.
“Literally, I’m a fan of this sport and I grew up watching Jeff Gordon go through those esses and watching how he drove his car,” Edwards said. “So to be able to hold him off like that means a lot. I’m glad there wasn’t one or two more laps in the race because I don’t know if it would have worked out that way, but it definitely meant a lot to have Jeff Gordon in my mirror.”
Kasey Kahne overcame early issues to finish sixth, Johnson was seventh, Ambrose held on for eighth, Greg Biffle was ninth. Bowyer was able to rally back from his earlier crash to finish tenth. The top five in the championship standings stand firm led by Gordon followed by Johnson, Earnhardt, Kenseth and Keselowski as the series heads to Kentucky Speedway for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400.