Fort Worth — As Jimmie Johnson labored in the middle of the pack Sunday, many at the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway kept waiting for the same thing -- nightfall.
That's when Johnson would make his charge, the prevailing theory went. That's how Chad Knaus, his shrewd crew chief, had planned it from the start.
After all, the Dickies 500 began in the heat of midafternoon and ended under the lights, when the 1.5-mile track cools and the cars' tires gain grip on the asphalt.
Knaus no doubt set up Johnson's Chevrolet to exploit the night conditions, which would give Johnson a strong finish and thus bolster his driver's lead for a third consecutive Cup championship, right?
Day or night, Johnson's car remained an ill-handling nightmare which, combined with Carl Edwards' winning the race on a gutsy fuel-mileage call, slashed Johnson's lead in the Chase for the Cup title playoff to 106 points over Edwards from 183 with two races left.
It was Edwards' eighth victory of the year -- which also included the spring race at the high-banked Texas track -- tying him for the series high with Kyle Busch.
Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon finished second in front of an estimated 165,000, followed by Edwards' teammate Jamie McMurray.
Edwards and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, won a remarkable gamble that the Roush Fenway Racing driver could go the last 69 laps of the 334-lap race without refueling.
As most others pitted in the waning laps and gave Edwards a commanding lead, Edwards stayed out and dramatically slowed his No. 99 Ford to conserve gas.
"It's not exactly as exciting as other ways to win, but it's neat," Edwards said. "I've never had Bob yell at me for going too fast, but he did tonight."
A week ago, many NASCAR observers were ready to concede the championship to Johnson, who is trying to join Cale Yarborough as the only NASCAR drivers to win three Cup titles in a row.
Edwards wasn't one of them.
"I feel satisfied that we did take a chunk out [of Johnson's lead]," Edwards said. "We're in a good spot right now."
Johnson settled for 15th, one lap down, and acknowledged that the Chase was still up for grabs with races next Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway and Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"Not a day we wanted," Johnson said. "Even at 183 points over Carl, I wasn't comfortable. Now that comfort margin has even closed up more."
Johnson needs to leave Phoenix with a 196-point lead to clinch the title before Homestead-Miami. That means Johnson must beat Edwards by 90 points (and third-place Greg Biffle by 52) at Phoenix to clinch next Sunday.
And if Johnson leaves Phoenix with a lead of at least 162 points, he would need only to start the last race to clinch in Florida.
In other words, Johnson is still in a very strong spot if he can run well in the next two races. But "this deal is far from over," Johnson said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., another Johnson teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, also tried to stretch his mileage, but the move backfired. He was running second with five laps left when he ran out of gas, forcing him to the pits and leaving him with a 20th-place finish.
Earnhardt said he told Tony Eury Jr., his crew chief and cousin, not to worry about the mishap.
"We all tried to win the race, and we win as a team and lose as a team," Earnhardt said. "We probably just should have started saving [fuel] a little bit earlier."
Although Edwards won his risky fuel play, he actually had the dominant car for much of the race, leading 212 laps.
But he and Osborne were forced to make the fuel bet after several drivers, including Gordon and McMurray, took only two tires on a late pit stop and Edwards took four.
The extra tires left Edwards seventh on the restart, and then he couldn't catch the leaders. So his team opted to go the distance without pitting again and hoped Edwards could stretch his mileage.
It wasn't an easy task.
"Everything in me is trying to figure out how to go faster," he said. "It really is difficult to figure out how to slow down sometimes."
David Gilliland of Riverside drew a stiff penalty from NASCAR after he bumped hard into Juan Pablo Montoya, causing Montoya to crash into the wall with 72 laps remaining.
NASCAR took Gilliland out of the race for aggressive driving, leaving him with a 42nd-place finish in the 43-car field. Montoya finished last.
Video replays of the incident made it appear Gilliland's bump might have been intentional, but Gilliland said he "just kind of misjudged it coming down across" Montoya.
"I hate that Juan's got a tore-up race car and we did [too]," said Gilliland, who drives for Yates Racing. "It's a shame it happened."
Peltz is a Times staff writer.
*--* RK DRIVER PTS BEHIND 1. Jimmie Johnson 6,366 -- 2. Carl Edwards 6,260 106 3. Greg Biffle 6,223 143 4. Jeff Burton 6,154 212 5. Jeff Gordon 6,111 255 6. Clint Bowyer 6,099 267 7. Kevin Harvick 6,087 279 8. Matt Kenseth 5,973 393 9. Tony Stewart 5,962 404 10 Kyle Busch 5,938 428 11. D. Earnhardt Jr. 5,937 429 12. Denny Hamlin 5,935 431 *--*