Carl Edwards squeezed a victory out of his last tank of gas, racing the last 69 laps of Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway without pitting.
The combination of Edwards' successful gamble and Johnson's 15th-place finish chopped a big chunk off what had been a daunting 183-point lead for Johnson heading into the Texas race. Edwards trails by 106 points with two races remaining.
Although Edwards dominated most of the event, leading 199 of the first 264 laps on the 1.5-mile oval, it was the daring call by crew chief Bob Osborne that got his driver this win after several other competitors had used two-tire strategies to get ahead of Edwards near the finish.
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"I thought Bob made a mistake on the four-tire change," Edwards said. "But Bob came up with a way to win that thing anyway."
Osborne breathed a sigh of relief after seeing his driver chop 77 points off Johnson's lead.
"We were very close, very close," the crew chief said.
Asked why he would take such a big risk rather than settling for an almost-certain top-five finish that would still have cut substantially into Johnson's lead, Osborne said it was because he could.
"If the points were closer, or we were in the lead, no, we would not have made that type of decision to gamble," Osborne said. "We're in a position where we want to make as many points up as we can. ... Obviously, we want to finish first, and that's what we're shooting for right now. It was just a risk that I thought was worth taking."
Edwards, who inherited the lead when Greg Biffle pitted with 13 laps remaining, beat runner-up Jeff Gordon by more than 8 seconds — most of the front straightaway — and still had enough gas left to do a couple of victory doughnuts.
But each lap as he raced toward the finish, Osborne was in his ear telling Edwards to slow down and save gas.
"I just was so nervous that we were missing something," Edwards said. "I thought there's no way we can go this slow, save this much fuel and still be leading this race."
Even before he got out of his car, Edwards asked Osborne on the radio: "Hey, where did Jimmie Johnson finish?"
The answer certainly pleased Edwards, who is hoping to keep Johnson from winning a record-tying third straight Cup title.
"I hope to keep it exciting," Edwards said, grinning.
A week earlier at Atlanta, Edwards won but was stunned to find out that Johnson had made a late charge to finish second and maintain most of his points margin. Edwards called Johnson, who had finished no worse than ninth in the first seven events of the 10-race Chase, "magic."
But this time it was Edwards who pulled off the big finish, winning for the eighth time this season and the 15th time in his career.
Edwards, who also won here in April, had leads of up to a quarter of a lap at times, but fell to seventh when Osborne chose to put on four tires on lap 265 of the 334-lap event.
But, as the laps wound down and the cars ahead of Edwards' No. 99 Ford began pitting for two tires and gas, Osborne told Edwards to stay on the track.
Still, it was guesswork to the end, with Osborne first telling his driver to conserve fuel because he was going to be a half-lap short, then saying he was four laps short. In the end, he went the final 103.5 miles on his last fill-up.
"I knew by default he wasn't too sure about it," Edwards said. "I'm glad it worked out. Unreal."
Johnson, who won this race a year ago, started seventh Sunday but quickly found himself in trouble, struggling with the handling on his No. 48 Chevrolet and sliding back through the field.
Edwards put him a lap down on lap 96 as Johnson slipped all the way to 33rd after a pit stop on lap 113. At that point, with Edwards leading, Johnson was only 64 points ahead. But his team kept making adjustments and Johnson was able to regain some of his lost ground, although he never got back on the lead lap.
"Not the day we wanted," Johnson said. "It's frustrating."
Asked about Edwards gambling on running the final 69 laps without pitting, Johnson said, "I don't know all the details yet. But, from where I'm sitting, they had a good chance to make up points on us, they didn't have to win the race.
"I feel that they knew they were going to make it," he added. "When they started that last run, I really expected the 99 to fly through the pack and end up in the lead in a short period of time. It just took them a long time to get going, I thought, 'Well, maybe his car isn't working right. But, I believe in the end they were saving fuel, they were playing that card and if it worked, great, if not, they still were going to gain a bunch of points on us."
Told what his lead is now, with only races at Phoenix and Homestead remaining, Johnson said, "It's still far from over. We've got to fight hard, and continue to fight hard. We go to a great track for us next week."
Biffle, who finished fifth, also kept his hopes alive in the Chase, remaining third as he came from 185 points behind Johnson to 143 back.
Fourth-place Jeff Burton, who began the day 218 points behind, finished 13th and gained only six points, virtually eliminating him from contention.
Jamie McMurray, who led late in the race before having to pit, wound up third, followed by Clint Bowyer, Biffle and Kyle Busch.