Matt Kenseth couldn't overcome handling problems that kept his car mired in traffic.
And Kevin Harvick, meanwhile, took advantage of Carl Edwards' fuel shortage to win his fourth race of the season in Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, keeping alive his faint hopes of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in his final season with Richard Childress Racing.
The net result? Johnson, who finished third, widened his lead over the struggling Kenseth, who ran 23rd, and took a giant step toward his sixth series championship.
Johnson expanded his advantage in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings from seven to 28 points over Kenseth entering next Sunday's season finale at Homestead- Miami Speedway. Johnson can clinch the title with a finish of 23rd or better, 24th if he leads one lap and 25th if he leads the most laps.
By winning and leading the most laps on Sunday, Harvick, third in the standings, narrowed his deficit to Johnson from 40 to 34 points and is still within range of the title, should Johnson have issues at Homestead.
The victory was Harvick's fourth at the one-mile track and the 23rd of his career. It came as a sudden surprise, as Edwards slowed on the final lap.
"Well I think we were all pushing it on gas there to try to just put enough in it to get to the end, so that we could gain all the track position we could under green," Harvick said of his final pit stop on Lap 267. "I saw him slowing with about maybe a lap and a half, two laps to go. (Team owner) Richard (Childress) came across the radio and said he was slowing down. I'm like 'Dang, we might still be in this thing.'"
Kasey Kahne ran second, followed by Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch. Edwards, who ran out of gas while leading on the final lap, finished 21st. Edwards slid up into Johnson's car on Lap 163, dropping Johnson back to 24th after Harvick took them three-wide entering Turn 1. Johnson made a spectacular save and spent the rest of the race working his way toward the front.
Johnson started from the pole but, thanks in part to Joey Logano's dive to the inside, failed to launch at the green flag, a tendency that would plague him all afternoon. Trouble on restarts may have kept the five-time champion from winning the race, but they didn't prevent him from recovering nicely when the incident with Edwards left him back in the pack.
"At two different points, as I saved it, the car pointed back at the fence, and I thought I was going to hit it," Johnson said. "Thankful that that didn't happen, clearly. [It] certainly worried me, and then we were mired in traffic after that, and I didn't know what that was going to mean for us."
Kenseth, on the other hand, could make little progress with a balky car whose handling deteriorated throughout the race, despite the best efforts of his crew to correct the problem.
"Obviously, it didn't drive good or we would have been up there with the front group," Kenseth said. "I just did all I could with it, which wasn't much."
Though Johnson enjoys a hefty advantage approaching the season finale, he was far from ready to lay claim to the title.
"Yeah, everybody is so eager to predict the champion, but you've got to play the game," said Johnson, who has finished 32nd and 36th in his last two races at Homestead. "You've got to run the race, and stuff happens. There’s so many variables in one of our races – I think more variables than any pro sport out there.
"We have all 43 teams playing, driving, racing, all the mechanical components on the race car, pit stops, other issues on other cars that can take you out … tires. There's a lot of variables, so we don't take any of these weekends lightly. Even with a nice points lead I'm not going to take any week any differently. There's still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it's no lay-up at all."
Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick are the only three drivers with a chance to win the championship. Kyle Busch (fourth in the standings) and Earnhardt (fifth) were among those eliminated at Phoenix.
Fuel miscalculation costs Carl Edwards victory At Phoenix
Carl Edwards’ march to victory ended early, and short of the checkered flag, for want of a half-gallon of gas.
Edwards ran out of fuel while leading on the final lap of Sunday's AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway, and Kevin Harvick sped past the No. 99 Ford to register his fourth win of the season.
"We played the strategy very well," said Edwards, who pitted for the final time on Lap 248 of 312 and tried to stretch his fuel supply to the end. "We did a really good job, but we just needed a little more fuel. We just miscalculated.
"I thought we were a lap to the good. I was saving just a little bit of fuel, but obviously not enough. I don't know if I could have saved a lap and kept Kevin behind me in hindsight, but that's a tough way to lose one there. We haven't run out of fuel in a long time."
Edwards was credited with a 21st-place finish, the last driver on the lead lap.
Halfway through the race, he survived a close call that could have altered the course of the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship battle. Edwards' Ford was the middle car in a three-wide sandwich as he, Harvick and series leader Jimmie Johnson entered Turn 1 on Lap 163.
Harvick was on the inside, and Edwards slid into Johnson's Chevrolet, which was closest to the wall. Johnson made a masterful save, fell back to 25th in the running order but rallied to finish third and extend his lead over second-place Matt Kenseth to 28 points going into next Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For Edwards, it was an uncomfortable moment.
"Yeah, I definitely did not mean to hit him," Edwards said. "He did a heck of a job saving it, and I'm just glad he saved it. I did not want to be part of the championship in that manner."
Rally for Junior
Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought his No. 88 Chevrolet to pit road for an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 63 and lost a lap in the process. The culprit? A loose wheel. Earnhardt, however, was back on the lead lap as the highest-scored lapped car after NASCAR called the fourth caution of the race for Dave Blaney's spin in Turn 1 on Lap 132.
A combination of hard driving and astute pit strategy on the part of crew chief Steve Letarte got Earnhardt back in the top five, and ultimately he delivered a fourth-place finish. The rally didn't surprise Earnhardt, who posted his seventh top 10 in the last eight races.
"We had a fast car," Earnhardt said. "I thought Steve Letarte could get some good strategy to get us back up into the top 10 and top five, and I was real happy with the way we were able to rebound."
Gain for Kahne
Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team are doing their best to finish strong.
Kahne's performance in the Chase has been, to say the least, erratic. Even after posting his second straight top-five finish Sunday at Phoenix, where he ran second to Kevin Harvick, Kahne is 12th in the Chase standings.
But with Sunday's success, the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet already is pointing to 2014.
"I get down once in a while and feel pretty bad about what's going on," Kahne said. "We've had a lot of things happen to us this year, but we've battled back the last two weeks. We ran pretty good, fifth and second, so I'm happy about that.
"We'll try to finish off strong at Homestead with another top five and maybe prepare a little better for next year and try to have a little more consistent, stronger year."
Notes: Average Speed of Race Winner: 105.733 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 57 Mins, 03 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.796 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 49 laps.
Lead Changes: 23 among 13 drivers.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Harvick 3 times for 70 laps; J. Gordon 4 times for 49 laps; K. Kahne 2 times for 41 laps; C. Edwards 2 times for 36 laps; J. Logano 2 times for 33 laps; R. Newman 3 times for 31 laps; B. Keselowski 1 time for 27 laps; D. Hamlin 1 time for 18 laps; D. Gilliland 1 time for 2 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 1 time for 2 laps; J. Johnson 1 time for 1 lap; G. Biffle 1 time for 1 lap; J. McMurray 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 13 in Points: J. Johnson - 2,384; M. Kenseth - 2,356; K. Harvick - 2,350; Kyle Busch - 2,327; D. Earnhardt Jr. - 2,321; J. Gordon - 2,304; G. Biffle - 2,301; C. Bowyer - 2,297; J. Logano - 2,287; Kurt Busch - 2,285; R. Newman - 2,259; K. Kahne - 2,252; C. Edwards - 2,250.