Jimmie Johnson claimed his seventh win of the season in dominant fashion at Phoenix as he closed in on his third consecutive Sprint Cup Series title.
The reigning champion won his third consecutive race at the one-mile oval, scoring maximum points to increase his gap to Carl Edwards in the championship. A thirty-sixth place finish in the season finale will be enough for him to seal the title next week at Homestead.
Johnson started from pole but lost the lead to Jamie McMurray on the first lap, although he reclaimed it from Kurt Busch on lap 81. Later on he lost the lead again in the pits during a caution period to Jamie McMurray, but it took him just a corner to get it back again following the restart.
The race ended under a green-white-chequered finish where Johnson was under pressure from Busch, but the Californian had enough pace to fend him off the Penske racer and drive to his 40th career victory in Sprint Cup competition.
"I had a nice lead on the 2 (Busch) and I just wanted the race to finish out without having those restarts there at the end," Johnson said. "I knew Kurt was hungry and behind him was McMurray wanting to win an then the 99 (Edwards) off course. I knew that I had to be on my toes and get every restart right.
"I'm excited. I wish we could have left here and all we had to do was start at Homestead (to win the title). But the 99 (Edwards) put up a great fight today and showed true champion character throughout the whole year. Those guys really made us work hard for it and I know we're going to have to deal with them for a long time.
"As long as something doesn't go crazy for us at Homestead we're going to be able to join Cale (Yarborough). I hope that happens and I can't wait to start celebrating."
Busch finished in a strong second place, running his best race for a while and leading sixty laps throughout the afternoon. He was followed by McMurray, who surprisingly stayed ahead of his Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards who was closely following him on the last two laps of the race.
Edwards now heads into the season finale with a slim chance of challenging Johnson for the title, but still kept his hopes alive after being almost out of the fight for the championship in the early stages of the race, where he was unable to move up in the order from his fifteenth starting position.
His fourth place in the end was the highest he ran all day and he failed to lead a lap for the first time in the past three weeks.
"It's possible, not real probable," Edwards said about his championship hopes. "But I guarantee that isn't going to change the way we do business. We're going to go to Homestead with everything we've got. We'll go there and be aggressive and try to win the race.
"Mile-and-a-halves have been our best tracks lately and I just wish we could've run a little better, we ran pretty well but didn't have enough time. We were barely marching forward. My guys did a really good job and congratulations to Jimmie and those guys. They're making this really tough."
Rounding out the top-five was Denny Hamlin after a tough battle for the position with Dale Earnhardt Jr following the penultimate caution. Kevin Harvick followed him in sixth, while Kyle Busch was seventh after taking on new tyres in one of the late cautions, when most of the leaders chose to stay out to maintain track position.
Jeff Burton ran a similar tyre strategy to Busch to finish ninth, ahead of David Ragan and Greg Biffle, who is now mathematically out of the fight for the championship at the season finale, a race he has won three times in the past four years.
The race was incident filled with ten caution periods and two red flags coming out during nearly four hours of racing. The first red flag waved on lap 43 due to rain, halting the race for 24 minutes. Another interruption came later for 23 minutes on lap 275 due to a multi-car crash at turn three.
The incident was ignited when Juan Pablo Montoya and Casey Mears made contact while fighting for position getting into turn three. Nine cars were part of the pile up, including Scott Speed, whose car somehow ended up underneath David Gilliland's machine, requiring extensive work from the safety crews to separate one car from the other.
All drivers involved were checked and released from the track's care centre.
Another major incident took place in the last few metres of the race when Matt Kenseth tangled with AJ Allmendinger at the exit of turn four while battling for fifteenth place, sending the Californian into Montoya, both crashing hard against the inside wall. At least another nine cars were caught up in the wreck.
Among the Chasers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart had tough days. The Hendrick driver ran strong before he hit engine trouble, causing his sixth DNF of the season. Stewart got spun six laps from the end when Allmendinger ran into Kenseth, when Stewart was on the outside of both of them.
Regan Smith was the highest finishing rookie in 23rd.
Pos Driver Car Laps 1. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 313 2. Kurt Busch Dodge 313 3. Jamie McMurray Ford 313 4. Carl Edwards Ford 313 5. Denny Hamlin Toyota 313 6. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 313 7. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 313 8. Kyle Busch Toyota 313 9. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 313 10. David Ragan Ford 313 11. Greg Biffle Ford 313 12. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 313 13. Kasey Kahne Dodge 313 14. Mark Martin Chevrolet 313 15. Matt Kenseth Ford 313 16. A.J. Allmendinger Dodge 313 17. Juan Montoya Dodge 313 18. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 313 19. Bobby Labonte Dodge 312 20. Dave Blaney Toyota 312 21. Travis Kvapil Ford 312 22. Tony Stewart Toyota 312 23. Regan Smith Chevrolet 312 24. Michael Waltrip Toyota 311 25. David Reutimann Toyota 311 26. Paul Menard Chevrolet 311 27. Ken Schrader Toyota 311 28. Robby Gordon Dodge 311 29. Bill Elliott Ford 311 30. Elliott Sadler Dodge 310 31. Reed Sorenson Dodge 309 32. Sterling Marlin Chevrolet 309 33. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 308 34. Ryan Newman Dodge 302 35. David Gilliland Ford 298 36. Casey Mears Chevrolet 278 37. Johnny Sauter Chevrolet 274 38. Scott Riggs Chevrolet 271 39. Kyle Petty Dodge 270 40. Scott Speed Toyota 269 41. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 266 42. Brian Vickers Toyota 29 43. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 27 Chase For The Cup - Points Standing: Pos Driver Change Points 1. Jimmie Johnson 6561 2. Carl Edwards 6420 +141 3. Greg Biffle 6358 +203 4. Jeff Burton 6292 +269 5. Kevin Harvick +2 6233 +328 6. Clint Bowyer 6226 +335 7. Jeff Gordon -2 6151 +410 8. Matt Kenseth 6091 +470 9. Denny Hamlin +3 6090 +471 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr +1 6087 +474 11. Kyle Busch -1 6080 +481 12. Tony Stewart -3 6059 +502