Carl Edwards ended a 70-race winless streak by gambling on fuel mileage at Phoenix, while the title battle tightened up even more heading into next week's season finale at Homestead.
The Roush Fenway racer had led every practice session of the weekend and started from pole position but it was Chase leader Denny Hamlin who dominated for most of the 312-mile event, leading 190 laps during the afternoon.
However, fuel calculations came into play in the closing laps of the race and Hamlin was one of those who elected to pit for fuel and two tires, doing so with 14 laps remaining, while Edwards remained on track and in the lead, hoping to go the distance.
As the laps counted down, Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya, who had taken fuel and four new tires on the fifth and final caution with less than 80 laps remaining was confident with his strategy in second place, closing the gap on Edwards.
The leader ran slower by the lap while managing the gap to Montoya and eventually he was able to keep a safe enough cushion to beat the odds and win for the first time since the 2008 season finale at Homestead.
"I thought I had the best car and then here comes Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson," said Edwards. "In the end to be able to make the fuel mileage work out was a little stressful but it worked."
Montoya surprisingly ran out of fuel on the final lap, allowing Newman to finish second ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson.
The reigning champion didn't lead a lap but ran among the top 10 all day, following Edwards' path on fuel strategy and taking a valuable result that allowed him to cut Hamlin's lead in the Chase down to just 15 points, the smallest gap ever in the Chase between the top two heading into the final race.
"We ran well all day long – our pit stops were phenomenal and kept us out of trouble a lot because of the great stops on pit road," said Johnson, who again had the crew that formerly served Jeff Gordon's car servicing his car in the pits after a mid-race swap at Texas last weekend.
"We had to work whatever magic we could there at the end and saved fuel and got it done. We have one heck of a points race going to Miami. I'm pumped. I'm so happy to put pressure on that 11 [Denny Hamlin] team – we're ready to race for this thing."
Kevin Harvick also raced at the front for most of the day, although he didn't lead a lap either. He charged back in the last part of the race following a penalty for a missing lug nut in a pit stop.
While serving his penalty he took on fuel, doing so again on the last caution to make sure he had enough to go the distance, picking up plenty of places in the last few laps to finish sixth, also closing on Hamlin in the Chase, 46 points separating him from the top spot.
"Our mistake wound up being something that gained us more points than if we would have not made the mistake," said Harvick. "We just kept after it and wound up getting an OK day.
"I didn't ever know that it would come down to the last race and I guess it's 46 points, I don't know how far it is from first to second, but that's what we race for. An hour ago I would have told you we were done. But now we stand here talking about gaining 11 or 13 [points] or whatever we gained today and we'll go down [to Homestead] and still have a shot."
Hamlin was furious after the race finished, as fuel mileage and strategy robbed him of what would have been his ninth win of the season and one that would have placed him much closer to his first Sprint Cup title. In the end, he only managed 12th place – which didn't do justice to the dominance he showed performance-wise throughout the day.
"Bad strategy at the end," rued Hamlin. "I couldn't control it. I did everything I was supposed to do today...usually we have the best fuel mileage. That part I don't understand."
The only way for Hamlin to be sure to clinch his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship without counting on his rival's misfortunes is by either finishing second while securing 10 bonus points for leading the most laps, or winning next Sunday's finale.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Carl Edwards Ford 312
2. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 312
3. Joey Logano Toyota 312
4. Greg Biffle Ford 312
5. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 312
6. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 312
7. Matt Kenseth Ford 312
8. Mark Martin Chevrolet 312
9. Kurt Busch Dodge 312
10. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 312
11. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 312
12. Denny Hamlin Toyota 312
13. Kyle Busch Toyota 312
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 312
15. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 312
16. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 312
17. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 312
18. A.J. Allmendinger Ford 312
19. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 312
20. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 311
21. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 311
22. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 311
23. Regan Smith Chevrolet 311
24. Casey Mears Toyota 311
25. David Ragan Ford 310
26. David Reutimann Toyota 310
27. Aric Almirola Ford 310
28. Elliott Sadler Ford 310
29. Paul Menard Ford 310
30. Kasey Kahne Toyota 310
31. J.J. Yeley Ford 309
32. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 309
33. Robby Gordon Toyota 308
34. Travis Kvapil Ford 308
35. Scott Speed Toyota 307
36. Tony Raines Ford 306
37. Dave Blaney Chevrolet 306
38. David Gilliland Ford 274
39. Mike Bliss Toyota 193
40. Landon Cassill Toyota 191
41. Terry Labonte Dodge 190
42. Brad Keselowski Dodge 58
43. Brendan Gaughan Chevrolet 1