AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Aflac Ford, races Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2011 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR At Phoenix: Kasey Kahne Wins; Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart Break Even

Edwards and Stewart both held serve in the desert as Kahne won his first race of the season.

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Quotable: NASCAR Drivers Talk About Sunday's Phoenix International Raceway Results

The following are some selected quotes from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers following Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway (if you landed here looking for the NASCAR Phoenix results, click here).

Kasey Kahne (won): "It's tough...(Red Bull) is shutting down in eight days. Over the last three months, you have one of the top-five cars in NASCAR, (and it's) shutting down. That's crazy."

Carl Edwards (finished second, leads point standings by three): "I can say completely truthfully this is the best Chase we've ever had. We haven't gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we've performed better than we ever have. If they're beating us, they're beating us at our best, and I think that's pretty neat."

Tony Stewart (finished third, trails Edwards by three points): "We both had to fight and fight and fight to get every point we can up to this point. I think it makes it more gratifying, the results, at the end of the day. I feel like I'm working toward something and I feel like if we accomplish this, we have worked for it – not had it handed to us."

Jeff Burton (finished fourth): "We got really tight there at the end and (Tony Stewart) had a lot of momentum. I didn't slam into him or anything, but I wasn't going to give him the spot. He earned it and he got it."

AJ Allmendinger (finished sixth): "(We switched pit crews with David Ragan because) we were bad. We were losing four or five spots on a stop. You can't do that and win a race, and those (No. 6 crew) guys are pretty good. They did a good job."

David Reutimann (finished seventh): "This team is capable of racing like this all the time, but for one reason or another, we just haven't shown it much this year."

Denny Hamlin (finished 12th): "Nobody could pass anyone, so it was really, really difficult from that aspect. We did the best we could with what we had. We just missed the setup pretty bad today."

Brad Keselowski (finished 18th): "The track was really, really good, actually. I don't see how anyone can complain about the track. It was a great race. It was a lot of fun, just disappointed we didn't close it out."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 24th): "We changed the whole setup last night. We put (Tony Stewart's) setup in – we didn't even practice it, and we missed it. We didn't hit it. The car was laying all over the racetrack. We just spent all day long trying to fix that."

Jeff Gordon (finished 32nd): "The corners are not bad, but that dogleg in the back is ridiculous. It's almost dangerous. I'm not a fan of that. But I think they are going to have a really nice racetrack here. The surface I liked as it moved into a wider groove."

Kyle Busch (finished 36th): "(The track) is slick. Man, you're on tiptoes all the time. It's very tough, but some of us make it look easy – but it might be because we're all considered the best in the business."

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Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers Differ On Cause Of Crash In NASCAR Phoenix Race

Matt Kenseth was certain Brian Vickers retaliated against him during Sunday's race, and said the contact between the two drivers – which put Kenseth in the wall – was intentional. But Vickers said otherwise, and NASCAR considers the matter closed.

"Obviously, it is retaliation for retaliation (at Martinsville), I guess," Kenseth said. "I was out of brakes and I was up on everybody and I saw him coming and I lifted at least 10 car lengths before where I would normally lift, and he drove in there at 165 miles per hour and cleaned us out."

Kenseth said he was "disappointed, but I expected it." (Here's the backstory on the Kenseth/Vickers history)

"You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast racetrack, he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out," Kenseth said. "And they do nothing about it. It was so premeditated. It just surprises me that (NASCAR) didn't do anything."

NASCAR did not penalize Vickers for the crash. NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell tweeted that officials "saw the incident differently."

Said NASCAR's John Darby in a statement: "Had we felt it was more than a racing incident, we would have reacted."

Kenseth's crew was upset by the wreck, though. Several crew members on the No. 17 team exchanged words with crewmen from the No. 83 team after the race, including crew chiefs Jimmy Fennig and Ryan Pemberton.

Pemberton walked across the garage to Kenseth's hauler after the race to talk with Fennig, who reacted angrily and began pointing fingers when Pemberton arrived.

"I'm with you!" Pemberton yelled, trying to diffuse the situation.

The two crew chiefs then walked out of earshot and continued their animated discussion for several minutes. Afterward, Fennig went to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hauler and pleaded his case to NASCAR's Robin Pemberton (the brother of Ryan Pemberton).

Fennig declined comment afterward.

Vickers, though, told The Associated Press that his actions were unintentional.

"I don't know what happened," Vickers told the AP"He just lifted halfway down the backstretch. I was planning on paying him back, but he just lifted halfway down the backstretch. He just stopped. I don't know why.

"If he wants to doubt us, that's fine. He wrecked me at Martinsville, he got wrecked here, but it actually wasn't (payback). I'm not saying I wasn't going to pay him back, but I'm just saying that wasn't it."

Later in the race, Kenseth returned to the track and had a chance to retaliate against Vickers. But instead, he just raced hard with the Red Bull Racing driver for a moment and let him go.

So why didn't Kenseth pay Vickers back?

"I don't stoop to that level," Kenseth said. "... I would never sit down there and wait for somebody and take a cheap shot like that. You can hurt someone like that and that isn't sportsmanlike and that isn't something I would do."

Kenseth questioned NASCAR as to why officials didn't park Vickers after the incident.

"We aren't racing street stocks at a quarter-mile track," he said, "so they need to figure out how to get the drivers to settle their differences in a different way and talk about it or figure it out or do something instead of using your car as a battering ram somewhere this fast."

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Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR Reign Ends At Phoenix After Five Straight Championships

As the sun set over Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday night, it did so as well on Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

Johnson will not win a sixth consecutive championship. He was officially eliminated from the Chase on Sunday when he finished 14th in the Kobalt Tools 500.

"There's definitely disappointment," he said on pit road after the race. "I think that'll be the emotion I feel at first. Over the offseason, I think it'll kick in some, and I'll reflect then."

Carl Edwards leads Tony Stewart by three points heading into the finale, and no other drivers are mathematically eligible. That includes Johnson, as strange as that may seem.

For NASCAR fans who have been inundated with Johnson coverage over the past five seasons, next week's Homestead race may seem downright weird.

You mean Jimmie can't win it? Someone else is guaranteed to be the champ?

Johnson, though, insisted it wouldn't be odd for him not to be a part of the title race.

"I guess I've been racing, shoot, 31 years?" he said. "And I've won probably two other big championships along the way. So, seven out of 31 years. This is normal. What we did over the past five years is abnormal. Now, we're getting a taste of normalcy."

For the "Anybody But Jimmie" crowd that grew over the seasons as Johnson won again and again, the No. 48 team's elimination is sweet.

But be warned: That doesn't mean Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus won't be back in championship form next season. In fact, it seems likely the 48 could be as good as ever in 2012.

"We'll definitely learn," Johnson said. "To a certain degree, being on top as long as we have been, it takes a lot of effort to maintain that. It takes a lot out of you. This winter will be a nice winter to unplug and relax, really look internally, dissect different scenarios for the race team and come back stronger.

"... We've got to work very, very hard this offseason to understand what's up. But I'm up for the challenge, and this team is."

It's likely NASCAR will never see a streak like Johnson's again. Only one other driver has won three championships in a row – let alone five.

"I don't see anybody doing it again," Tony Stewart said. "I think it's been absolutely remarkable to begin with, for Jimmie to put five in a row together. I know this year hasn't ended up the way he wanted by any means, but I think he goes to Vegas (at the awards banquet) and holds his head up high knowing what they've accomplished.

"I think that's something in NASCAR history that I'd put money on will never happen again. I'm willing to make that bet with anybody in this room."

As Johnson departed Phoenix, he summed his feelings via Twitter.

"It's been one hell of a run," he tweeted.

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NASCAR At Phoenix International Raceway Race Results: Kasey Kahne Wins, Carl Edwards Maintains Points Lead

Kasey Kahne continued his late-season charge Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, earning his first win since 2009 and first as a Red Bull Racing driver. With a fast car and a fast pit crew, Kahne was able to emerge with the lead after a quick late-race pit stop.

Tony Stewart was the dominant car on the day, leading 160 of the 313 laps. Despite his strong run, Stewart lost the handling of the No. 14 Chevrolet late in the race and finished the day in third, one spot behind championship contender Carl Edwards. 

Finishing second, Edwards was able to maintain a three point lead over Stewart as the series head to the season finale next week in Homestead. 

Here is how they finished:

 

  1. Kasey Kahne
  2. Carl Edwards
  3. Tony Stewart
  4. Jeff Burton
  5. Ryan Newman
  6. AJ Allmendinger
  7. David Reutimann
  8. Marcos Ambrose
  9. Paul Menard
  10. Clint Bowyer
  11. Joey Logano
  12. Denny Hamlin
  13. Greg Biffle
  14. Jimmie Johnson
  15. Juan Pablo Montoya
  16. Mark Martin
  17. Jamie McMurray
  18. Brad Keselowski
  19. Kevin Harvick
  20. Martin Truex Jr.
  21. Bobby Labonte 
  22. Kurt Busch
  23. Brian Vickers
  24. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 
  25. Cole Whitt
  26. Casey Mears
  27. Dave Blaney 
  28. J.J. Yeley
  29. Landon Cassill
  30. Mike Bliss
  31. David Gilliland
  32. Jeff Gordon
  33. David Ragan
  34. Matt Kenseth
  35. Robby Gordon
  36. Kyle Busch
  37. Geoffrey Bodine
  38. Regan Smith 
  39. Scott Speed 
  40. Michael McDowell
  41. Joe Nemechek
  42. Mike Skinner
  43. Travis Kvapil
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NASCAR Phoenix Race Today Could Be Deciding Factor In Championship

It can be argued that although Denny Hamlin had the Chase points lead heading into Homestead last season, he actually lost the championship at Phoenix.

One year ago, Hamlin was dominating Phoenix with a chance to end Jimmie Johnson's reign if he had a solid finish. Instead, Hamlin's team messed up the fuel strategy, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver lost valuable points.

He should have left Phoenix with a 70-point lead, but instead was up by just 15. And so by the time he arrived in Homestead, he was virtually defeated.

With only two races remaining in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Tony Stewart and Chase leader Carl Edwards could face a similar situation in today's Phoenix race.

The season finale next week could be a virtual wash – Edwards is NASCAR's best driver at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Stewart has been great lately on 1.5-mile tracks as well (see: Chicagoland, Texas).

In that case, if the championship is to be won or lost, the Phoenix race may be where it happens.

"Anything can happen at Homestead still – five (laps) to go and some guys take tires and some don't or something like that – but I think this track is probably the one that will separate us if it is going to happen," Edwards said Friday.

Said Stewart: "I guess I'm not really worried about it as much as I'm worried about getting through this weekend."

Anyway, it's worth keeping in mind while you're watching today's race.

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NASCAR At Phoenix International Raceway: 2011 Start Time, Starting Lineup, TV/Radio Listings And More

It's NASCAR race day at Phoenix International Raceway and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about today's Chase race for you below.

What time does the race start today? The Phoenix start time is a bit later than most Chase races have been, because NASCAR and ESPN want the final three races of the season to finish closer to prime time on the East Coast. The command to start engines will be given by veteran race car driver Adrian Fernandez at 3:09 p.m. Eastern time. The green flag will then wave at 3:17 p.m. Eastern. So if you want to tune in for the actual race itself and skip the pre-race show, just tune in at 3:17.

Race name/distance: The Kobalt Tools 500 is not 500 miles, but 500 kilometers around the 1-mile oval near Phoenix. The actual distance of the race is 312 miles, which makes it one of the shorter NASCAR races of the season.

TV and radio: Today's race can be seen on ESPN. Every Sprint Cup race will be on ESPN for the rest of the season. If you aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen.

National anthem: Minneapolis-based rock/pop band Catchpenny will perform the national anthem today. There haven't been too many rock bands that have performed the anthem lately after disasters by Brett Michaels and Saving Abel last season, so this should be interesting.

Tickets: The grandstands are sold out for today's Phoenix race. If you want to buy an infield ticket or find a seat on Rattlesnake Hill, however, those tickets are still available.

Weather: Iffy. The unofficial NASCAR weatherman says there's a chance of rain due to a storm system that will pass south of the track near the Arizona/Mexico border. He's optimistic the race will get in, however.

Last time: Jeff Gordon ended a 66-race winless drought by winning the Phoenix race in February, which was the second race of the season. One year ago, Denny Hamlin dominated the race but blew it with late fuel strategy, and Carl Edwards won instead. But since both those races, the track has been reconfigured and drivers say it's a completely new place.

Starting lineup for today's NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway (Chase drivers in bold):

  1. Matt Kenseth
  2. AJ Allmendinger
  3. Marcos Ambrose
  4. Mark Martin
  5. Martin Truex Jr.
  6. Jamie McMurray
  7. David Reutimann
  8. Tony Stewart
  9. Carl Edwards
  10. Kasey Kahne
  11. Paul Menard
  12. Brad Keselowski
  13. David Ragan
  14. Jeff Burton
  15. Regan Smith
  16. Jimmie Johnson
  17. Kurt Busch
  18. Brian Vickers
  19. Cole Whitt
  20. Robby Gordon
  21. Landon Cassill
  22. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  23. Jeff Gordon
  24. Scott Speed
  25. Joey Logano
  26. Juan Pablo Montoya
  27. Kevin Harvick
  28. Clint Bowyer
  29. Greg Biffle
  30. Ryan Newman
  31. Bobby Labonte
  32. Joe Nemechek
  33. Denny Hamlin
  34. Kyle Busch
  35. Michael McDowell
  36. Mike Skinner
  37. Travis Kvapil
  38. Casey Mears
  39. Dave Blaney
  40. Mike Bliss
  41. Geoff Bodine
  42. JJ Yeley
  43. David Gilliland
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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Likely To Win 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series Title, But Won't Celebrate Yet

The Nationwide Series garage was nearly empty, but the series' likely new champion lingered along with the twilight.

Sporting a black cowboy hat and boots, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reflected on a day that virtually wrapped up his first NASCAR championship – albeit by a stroke of misfortune for one of his competitors.

Elliott Sadler was wrecked by Jason Leffler midway through Saturday's Nationwide race and, combined with Stenhouse's fifth-place finish, the championship is now firmly in the young driver's grasp.

Stenhouse leads by 41 points and should easily win the Nationwide title, barring a disaster.

"That's gonna be cool," Stenhouse said. "We feel really good about going into Homestead. It's one of my favorite racetracks...so it'll be nice going in with this big of a points lead."

Stenhouse said he wasn't ready to celebrate, though. He was still mad about not winning the Phoenix race despite leading the most laps.

So how did Stenhouse react to the news when he heard Sadler was involved in the crash? Though he said he felt sorry for Sadler's luck and didn't want his championship rival to crash, it was also a relief to know his points lead was padded. 

"My spotter said the 2 was in (the wreck) pretty bad, but then I didn't ask any more questions," he said. "I was kind of upset about how loose we were on that restart, because we had a really fast race car up until that point.

"So I sat there under that red flag for awhile and was just kind of sitting there, and I was (finally) like, 'What happened?' Nobody said anything.

"I was like, 'Hello?' And they were like, 'Sorry, I was watching it.' They told me what happened, and at that point, I knew. I was like, 'Whew.'"

Stenhouse Jr. said he was more conservative for the rest of the race. But he won't be next week at Homestead, even though he only needs to finish 37th or better to clinch the title.

"We've still got one more race to go – anything can happen," he said. "Obviously, you've got the start-and-parks that are hopefully going to be able to clinch it after four or five laps. But we're going to be going hard at the win at Homestead."

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NASCAR Phoenix Nationwide Series Results: Sam Hornish Jr. Wins First NASCAR Race

Sam Hornish Jr. admits there have been many times when he shook his head at himself and said, "Why did I do this?"

The three-time IndyCar Series champion had left the open-wheel world, where he was ultra-successful, for the new challenge of NASCAR.

And until Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway, it was pretty much a failure.

Seemingly out of nowhere, though, the part-time Nationwide Series driver won his first career NASCAR race and proved to the garage – and himself – that he's capable of stock-car success.

"It's been a tough couple years," said Hornish, who got choked up in Victory Lane. "Been awhile since I got to carry a checkered flag around."

Hornish left IndyCar after 2007 and joined the Sprint Cup Series with Penske Racing, but wasn't able to provide any results.

He had just eight top-10 finishes in three full seasons of Cup racing, and his ride at Penske disappeared after last season.

Though he probably could have tried to return to IndyCar, Hornish wanted to prove he could succeed in NASCAR. He settled for a part-time Nationwide Series schedule with Penske this season (he's driven just 12 races), and he finally broke through on Saturday.

Hornish led the final 61 laps and held off his challengers on the final restart – a group that included teammate Brad Keselowski (second) and Carl Edwards (third).

"The guys that are the week-in, week-out regulars – we beat 'em," crew chief Chad Walter said. "We beat the pants off 'em."

Hornish became the third first-time Nationwide winner this season, and it was the fifth win by a non-Cup regular.

"Huge, huge day for Sam," said Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who finished second. "Sam has paid a lot of dues in this sport. It's good to see him have some success. It looks like this is a good fit for Sam."

Hornish said he's close to running a full Nationwide schedule and hopes his win helps that cause. Team owner Roger Penske backed that assertion, saying he may have moved Hornish to Sprint Cup too quickly but vowed to "stay together."

"He's been real humbled here for the last 12 to 18 months," Penske said. "Maybe I made a mistake putting him at the top (too fast)."

"I'm glad that I stuck it out," Hornish said, his voice wavering. "I came over here not because it was more money or anything like that, but it's because I was interested in it...and I got to see there was something different out there, something that challenged me again. Is it the challenge I thought it was? Heck yeah."

Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series title chase is all but over. Elliott Sadler was crashed by Jason Leffler after the latter driver misjudged the distance between them when Sadler cut up in front of him off the apron.

"The 38 car just ran completely into the back of us," Sadler said. "This all gets thrown away in a blink of an eye. I don't understand – I actually thought Jason had a little more respect for people than that, especially people running for the championship."

Said Leffler: "He stopped sooner than I expected, but ultimately it's my responsibility. ... It wasn't on purpose. It was a mistake on my part."

The wreck ended Sadler's championship hopes and gave Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a 41-point lead. Because there are so many start-and-park drivers in the Nationwide Series, Stenhouse is virtually assured of a title no matter what Sadler does.

Stenhouse only has to finish 37th or better at Homestead to win his first championship.

"I was a little cautious on those last restarts, just for that fact that I didn't want to get in trouble," Stenhouse said. "I think we can get a little more aggressive on restarts next week and Homestead is one of my favorite places to go, so I am looking forward to it."

Here are the NASCAR Nationwide Series results from Phoenix International Raceway:

  1. Sam Hornish Jr.
  2. Brad Keselowski
  3. Carl Edwards
  4. Joey Logano
  5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  6. Trevor Bayne
  7. Clint Bowyer
  8. Ryan Truex
  9. Justin Allgaier
  10. Michael Annett
  11. David Stremme
  12. Joe Nemechek
  13. Ron Hornaday Jr.
  14. Blake Koch
  15. Ricky Carmichael
  16. Mike Wallace
  17. Kenny Wallace
  18. Timmy Hill
  19. Eric McClure
  20. Kevin Lepage
  21. Danica Patrick
  22. Robert Richardson Jr.
  23. TJ Duke
  24. Jeremy Clements
  25. Aric Almirola
  26. Jason Leffler
  27. Elliott Sadler
  28. Morgan Shepherd
  29. Steve Wallace
  30. James Buescher
  31. Mike Bliss
  32. Derrike Cope
  33. DJ Kennington
  34. Jeff Green
  35. Reed Sorenson
  36. Mark Green
  37. Scott Speed
  38. Chase Miller
  39. Matt Carter
  40. Johnny Chapman
  41. Tim Andrews
  42. Brian Scott
  43. Matt Frahm
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NASCAR Phoenix Starting Lineup: Tony Stewart Qualifies One Position Ahead Of Carl Edwards

Tony Stewart trumped Carl Edwards by one spot in the most important qualifying session of the season, but neither of the top two Chase contenders could best Edwards' teammate Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth took the pole position for Sunday's penultimate Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway, posting an average speed of 137.101 mph to take his third pole of the season.

Stewart, meanwhile, qualified eighth and will start one position ahead of Edwards (ninth), who is the Chase leader by three points.

The qualifying session was crucial for Edwards and Stewart because Phoenix figures to be a track position game with very little passing. The new surface at Phoenix is proving to be treacherous for drivers, who haven't been able to find an outside groove yet.

Stewart will be stuck starting the race on the outside lane, and may have to hope someone like Chevrolet teammate Paul Menard (11th) lets him in line.

Richard Petty Motorsports teammates AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top three spots.

  1. Matt Kenseth
  2. AJ Allmendinger
  3. Marcos Ambrose
  4. Mark Martin
  5. Martin Truex Jr.
  6. Jamie McMurray
  7. David Reutimann
  8. Tony Stewart
  9. Carl Edwards
  10. Kasey Kahne
  11. Paul Menard
  12. Brad Keselowski
  13. David Ragan
  14. Jeff Burton
  15. Regan Smith
  16. Jimmie Johnson
  17. Kurt Busch
  18. Brian Vickers
  19. Cole Whitt
  20. Robby Gordon
  21. Landon Cassill
  22. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  23. Jeff Gordon
  24. Scott Speed
  25. Joey Logano
  26. Juan Pablo Montoya
  27. Kevin Harvick
  28. Clint Bowyer
  29. Greg Biffle
  30. Ryan Newman
  31. Bobby Labonte
  32. Joe Nemechek
  33. Denny Hamlin
  34. Kyle Busch
  35. Michael McDowell
  36. Mike Skinner
  37. Travis Kvapil
  38. Casey Mears
  39. Dave Blaney
  40. Mike Bliss
  41. Geoff Bodine
  42. JJ Yeley
  43. David Gilliland
DNQ: Scott Riggs, David Stremme, Andy Lally
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How Joe Gibbs Saved Kyle Busch's Career After Texas Penalty

For a moment on Friday, albeit a brief one, Kyle Busch appeared to get choked up.

After a week in which Busch was punished with the modern-day equivalent of being tarred and feathered following his intentional wreck of Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Texas trucks race, one person may have saved him from the lowest point of his career.

That man was team owner Joe Gibbs.

"Was there a point in which I thought, 'Do I have a ride?' Of course there was. Yeah, I thought that," Busch said Friday in front of a room packed full of reporters at Phoenix International Raceway. "Was there a point in which Joe ever told me, 'Hey, we're looking at terminating this?' No."

It was then that Busch's voice began to waver slightly, the emotion tangible in his words.

"Joe has been there and has stuck by my side and has held my arm through this whole deal," Busch said. "I can't say enough about the man sitting next to me."

Busch has plenty of reason to feel grateful to Gibbs, the legendary NFL coach who became a championship-winning NASCAR team owner.

When it appeared Busch's future with Joe Gibbs Racing – and thus his career with a top-tier race team – was in jeopardy this week, it turned out Gibbs was fighting for the driver behind the scenes all along.

Gibbs, a devout Christian who has written a book about winning at the game of life, decided to practice what he preached. He forgave Busch and tried to help the driver through the storm, working to ensure he would have another chance.

"When you're put in a situation like this, you can really make one of two decisions," Gibbs said. "I think the one (firing Busch) would have been devastating and I think really discouraging for everybody associated with Kyle. ... What I've chosen to do, I want to support Kyle and I feel like this could have a positive impact on Kyle.

"I'm committed to him as a person. I like him; we've gone through a lot together."

M&M's, the candy brand owned by the Mars family, wasn't as forgiving of Busch's latest transgression. The company places an utmost priority on its family-friendly image, and it wanted to send a message to Busch that turning another competitor head-first into the wall out of anger was unacceptable.

We don't know yet whether or not M&M's initially wanted to bail on Busch altogether (M&M's will be back on Busch's car in 2012). But we do know the Mars family didn't want to end its relationship with Gibbs himself.

So throughout the week and all the way until late Thursday night, Gibbs and M&M's worked to figure out a solution that was acceptable to both parties.

They concluded M&M's would come off the car for the final two races of the season, replaced by longtime Gibbs supporter Interstate Batteries.

Since there's a very small chance Interstate is paying the same amount as M&M's would have, it's likely Busch is taking a hit in his wallet over the next two weeks as well.

Gibbs declined comment when asked the details of the financial agreement, but said Busch would incur "other financial penalties and stuff that we're working through."

Busch, though, is likely thankful just to still have a job. If Gibbs had decided to fire him, Busch's links to nearly all the upper-echelon NASCAR teams would have been broken.

His odds of finding a competitive ride for next season would have been slim.

And as Busch sat back and had time to reflect this week, he undoubtedly realized Gibbs was his strongest and most loyal supporter outside of his family.

If Busch ever redeems himself in the eyes of NASCAR fans, it will be years from now. He has a long way to go.

But as long as Gibbs stands by him, he at least has a chance.

"There's an opportunity for me to become a better person, to grow and learn from this," Busch said. "I'm looking forward to those days."

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Juan Pablo Montoya Claims Deal Is Signed With Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

Juan Pablo Montoya has struck a deal with car owner Chip Ganassi to return to Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing's No. 42 car next season.

And the Colombia native even says he's signed a new contract. Or has he?

Montoya danced around questions about his future at EGR on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway and wouldn't say outright if he's signed a new deal or not.

As he's done for most of the season, though, Montoya insisted he'd be back in the car next year.

Check out this exchange between Montoya and reporters:

REPORTER: So the deal is signed?

JPM: Yeah. I'll be driving this car next year. It's a given.

REPORTER: Well, it's not a given if the deal hasn't been signed.

JPM: We're all good.

REPORTER: How long is the deal for?

JPM: None of your business (laughs). We're all good.

REPORTER: Are there options written into the contract?

JPM: There's an option for the option, yeah. An option to have dinner with him, yeah.

At any rate, Montoya said his team is "really trying to enjoy ourselves" right now and "have fun" in the final weeks of the season.

Whether driver and team have a deal to remain together next season is anyone's guess.

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Denny Hamlin: Kyle Busch Doesn't Need Lectures From Me

Denny Hamlin said he sees no point in lecturing his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate or dispensing advice about Busch's actions over the past week because Busch has already been through so much.

"Just let him race and let him do what he came out here to do and be easier on him," Hamlin said of his mindset. "He doesn't need to hear from me what he did wrong and what he did right."

Hamlin said he turns to team owner Joe Gibbs when there's an issue, and expects Busch would do the same instead of coming to a teammate for advice.

"There's nothing I'm going to tell him that he can't learn from Joe Gibbs," Hamlin said.

Busch, Hamlin said, is "still a young guy, still figuring things out." Drivers sometimes have wake-up calls that "put them in their place," he added.

But whether Busch will change as a person or needs to see a sports psychologist – as Hamlin did after losing the championship last year – were subjects Hamlin wanted to avoid.

"I'm not Kyle's best friend, so I don't know him that well," Hamlin said. "I know him as a teammate and we've worked together professionally and we talk. But when we talk, it's about race cars and what we can do to make our race cars better.

"It's not much about personal life and things like that. So that's a totally different subject and I just don't feel totally comfortable answering things about that side."

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Jeff Gordon Identifies The Line In NASCAR's 'Boys, Have At It' Policy

It's been noted by some that NASCAR's 'Boys, Have At It' policy is murkier than ever after officials came down hard on Kyle Busch last week at Texas but didn't react in a similar fashion to other instances of retaliation.

The line between acceptable and unacceptable, some drivers have said, is difficult to find.

But don't count Jeff Gordon among that crowd. Gordon insisted there is a clear line after the Busch incident.

So what is it?

"You just saw it," he said. "... When you know that you didn't do the right thing, then you know there are consequences."

Gordon said he would fully expect to be punished if he did something similar to what Busch did to Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas.

The biggest factor in the incident, he said, was that it occurred during a caution period.

"To me, the caution flag being out is a huge part of crossing the line," he said. "There's plenty of times when guys deliberately wreck one another – it happens all the time.

"But a lot of times when that happens, it's a judgment call. It's not a judgment call when the caution comes out."

RELATED: Satirist @nascarcasm diagrams NASCAR's 'Boys, Have At It' policy

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Is Tony Stewart Upset To See Kyle Busch Drama Overshadow NASCAR Points Chase?

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are in the middle of one of the best points races in NASCAR history with two races remaining in the season.

But nobody seemed to be talking about that this week. Instead, it was Kyle Busch, Kyle Busch and Kyle Busch.

Stewart, though, seemed understanding about why all the coverage focused on Busch's penalty for his actions at Texas and ensuing sponsor troubles this week instead of the points Chase.

"The news this week was big news," he said. "Obviously, it's something we haven't seen in our sport in a long time. So it's very understandable that it's had the attention that it's had. But it doesn't bother me in the least bit, at least from our side. It's actually made it an easier week for us."

The two-time Sprint Cup champion trails Edwards by just three points with just Phoenix and Homestead left on the schedule. And to hear him tell it, whether anyone talks about his potential accomplishment is irrelevant.

"If I take that trophy home, the media is not going to be there anyway," he said. "So all I care about is having that trophy. I don't care if anybody talks about it if (the championship) happens. All I care about is the accomplishment for our organization."

In related news, Stewart-Haas Racing continues to add new sponsorship. Stewart announced Friday morning the team had signed Outback Steakhouse to sponsor Ryan Newman's car for two races next season.

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M&M's Pulls Kyle Busch Sponsorship For Final Races Of 2011; Will Return In 2012

Kyle Busch has lost sponsor M&M's for the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of this season due to his actions at Texas, but will still race at Phoenix and Homestead thanks to sponsorship from Interstate Batteries.

M&M's isn't breaking up with Busch for good, though. The company will return to sponsor Busch next season after sending what it believes is a strong message to Busch not to screw up again.

In a statement released shortly after 9:30 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday night, Mars (which owns M&M's) said Busch's relationship with the company is dependent on no future incidents taking place.

Busch came under fire after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. during last week's Camping World Truck Series race and was parked for the weekend by NASCAR, then later fined.

Mars, though, felt that wasn't enough.

"Kyle's recent actions are unacceptable and do not reflect the values of Mars," a company official said in a statement. "While we do not condone Kyle's recent actions, we do believe that he has shown remorse and has expressed a desire to change. We believe our decision will have a positive impact on Kyle and will help him return next season ready to win."

Team owner Joe Gibbs said the team "strongly supports Mars' decision."

"This gives us all time to work together to foster a positive change where Kyle can continue racing in a way we can all be proud of," he said.

Busch will address the NASCAR media as the first scheduled driver availability session on Friday morning.

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Sources: Kyle Busch Will Race Interstate Batteries Car At Phoenix

With sunset approaching in Phoenix, the decision over Kyle Busch's fate for this weekend – and beyond – has yet to be officially made public.

But two sources confirmed to SB Nation that Busch would drive Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 car after all this weekend – except with sponsorship from Interstate Batteries instead of M&M's.

The Interstate Batteries sponsorship was first reported by ESPN's Marty Smith on Thursday afternoon.

Joe Gibbs Racing and its sponsors had wrestled with what to do about Busch for much of the week and continued to do so throughout the day on Thursday. As the deadline approaches – that being Sprint Cup Series practice on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway – the team has yet to officially announce what will happen to Busch.

Mars Inc., which owns M&M's, is said to have had enough of Busch's shenanigans, with his suspension from last week's intentional crash of Ron Hornaday in the Texas trucks race as the final straw.

A source told SB Nation that Nationwide Series driver Aric Almirola was contacted Wednesday and put on standby to drive the No. 18 Sprint Cup Series car this weekend – a fact Almirola confirmed to ESPN.com on Thursday. But Almirola told the website he had yet to hear from Joe Gibbs Racing on whether or not he would race.

Late Thursday afternoon, it turned out he wouldn't.

Interstate Batteries owner Norm Miller has a close relationship with both team owner Joe Gibbs and Busch, and apparently a deal was struck to let M&M's out of the final two races and put Interstate on the car instead.

A representative for Busch had no comment on the Interstate Batteries report. Joe Gibbs Racing did not respond to a request for comment.

The Associated Press reported earlier Thursday that another of Busch's sponsors, Z-Line Designs, asked JGR to replace Busch with Denny Hamlin in the Homestead Nationwide Series race next week. Busch was not scheduled to drive the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix.

On Tuesday, when NASCAR issued a $50,000 fine and put Busch on probation for the remainder of the season, it seemed the controversial driver would be cleared to race at Phoenix and Homestead.

But that apparently wasn't enough for M&M's, which had previously released a statement expressing its displeasure with Busch's actions.

Even if Busch races this weekend, plenty of unanswered questions remain.

Is this the end of Busch's relationship with Mars, or is the sponsor just trying to send a message? Will Mars use Busch's suspension to get out of its deal with JGR altogether and leave the team? And will Busch even keep his job at JGR next season?

The most immediate question for now, though, is: When will Joe Gibbs Racing confirm Busch is racing at Phoenix this weekend?

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Phoenix International Raceway Details Efforts To Get New Surface Race-Ready

Phoenix International Raceway is not taking the concerns of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series drivers lightly.

In response to drivers' worries about whether the newly repaved Phoenix track will put on a good race, the track has attempted to expand the racing groove through several recent steps.

Track president Bryan Sperber said PIR has used an advanced tire-dragging machine to lay rubber on the track (the machine spent 90 hours on track in the process) and had six Richard Petty Driving Experience cars on the surface for a collective 3,000 miles this week.

"This track has a lot of grip and we definitely widened the grip out," said former Nationwide Series champion Randy Lajoie, who drove one of the RPDE cars. "We've been able to give the drivers some more options. What the track did – it's definitely going to make everyone who tested here think it's a whole lot nicer when they turn their first laps."

Said Steve Grissom, who drove another car: "From the work that has been done between the test and running yesterday, it's pretty amazing. It has definitely picked up the pace here on the track. I think the drivers are going to be really surprised from the time they tested to when they put down the first laps Thursday, and it's only going to get better."

Sperber said the track would also be washed and swept before turning the facility over to NASCAR for the weekend. Some drivers had expressed concern about dust and sand on the surface.

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