KANSAS CITY — Carl Edwards kept complaining that his car was tight. It wouldn't turn in the corners, and nothing his team did seemed to work.
The Columbia native had come to Kansas Speedway after a pit road speeding penalty cost him a chance to win at Dover, brashly proclaiming that he'd make up for his mistake with a victory. But as the laps wore on on Sunday, and his car kept getting tougher to handle, that looked more and more unlikely.
"I had a hint in the first corner. I drove down in the first corner, I said, 'Man, this is not good,'" Edwards said. "That's the worst the car has felt in a race for a long time."
After falling a lap down, some fortuitous caution flags got him back on the lead lap, and his team finally got the car to cooperate enough for Edwards to drive it through the field. He never had enough to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the race lead, but it was good enough to finish fifth.
And it gave Edwards the lead in the Chase, the lead that really counts.
"We're lucky," Edwards said. "We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. We've messed up enough in the past that I'm pretty proud of our ability to take our bad days and keep plugging along. We messed up some races, some points races, in the past, and I believe we've learned from that. It's a little test when you go through this to see if someone melts down."
Edwards said he felt as if he had won the race, given all the problems he had.
Johnson, the winner, didn't have those problems.
The five-time defending Cup champion stormed to the front early, weathered every late caution and held off Kasey Kahne in a green-white-checkered finish for his first victory since April.
It was enough for Johnson, who was 10th in the standings before a second-place run at Dover, to climb all the way to third in the standings. Johnson still trails Edwards and Kevin Harvick, who finished sixth and is one point off the lead, but he's knocking on the door.
"I think he should just pack it up. It's over. He's too far back," Edwards said jokingly.
Johnson is just four points out of first place. In the revamped points system, that essentially means he's four spots on the racetrack behind Edwards as the series heads to Charlotte.
There are six races left, plenty of time for Johnson to complete another charge.
"I look at this year, there's probably three or four opportunities to win that come to mind that we just didn't take advantage of," said Johnson, who hadn't won since Talladega. "I messed up, we had pit road issues, a lot of little things went wrong.
"The competitor in all of us, we've known we've been close," Johnson said. "We want to win."
Johnson was headed for an easy one most of the afternoon. He led 197 laps, at one point building a 12-second advantage over second place, before a series of yellow flags bunched up the field.
The final caution flew for Jeff Gordon, whose engine blew with three laps left.
Johnson chose not to pit before the sprint to the finish but still managed to drive away from Kahne and Brad Keselowski on worn out tires. Keselowski, who won the Nationwide race Saturday, wound up third and climbed into fourth place in the Chase standings.
"It all comes back to having a good team," Keselowski said. "Good teams have good cars, they're the best at the end, the fastest at the end, they have good pit strategy and they're strong through adversity, and I just have a really good team."
Tony Stewart spent most of the afternoon trying to chase down Johnson, and at times appeared to have the car to do it. Stewart had climbed 17 spots to sixth after about 50 laps and at one point told his team triumphantly over the radio, "I'm in a hurry ... I've got things to do."
A series of mistakes near the end cost him, though.
Stewart chose to pit when Gordon brought out the final caution but carried too much speed down the pit road and slid through his stall. By the time his team backed him up and changed tires, Stewart had shuffled back to 17th, and he crossed the finish line in 15th.
Stewart won the first two races of the Chase to vault into the points lead, but he struggled all weekend at Dover and finished 25th. He'll now head to Charlotte eighth in the standings, but he's just 19 points out of first place and still harbors a realistic chance of rallying.
Matt Kenseth is fifth in points after his fourth-place run. Kurt Busch dropped two spots to sixth and Kyle Busch is seventh after his top-10 finish.
They're all chasing Johnson.
The most dominant driver in NASCAR started 19th and quickly drove to the front, then set it on cruise control the rest of the afternoon. Stewart tried to challenge him, and a few other contenders tried to work fuel strategy, but the late yellows took that out of the equation.
Johnson passed Keselowski for the lead after a caution with 27 laps remaining, then held off the field during the green-white-checkered finish.
"He's going to be tough," Keselowski said. "The real question is we've got two big wild card races with Phoenix and Talladega, and I don't think you can rule anyone in or out until those two races are over and we get to Homestead."