AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) -The drama began shortly after the garage at Phoenix International Raceway opened Saturday and crew chiefs began to ponder what pit stall they'd select for the Sprint Cup race.
The weekly process usually goes off with zero fanfare. But since crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Mike Ford turned pit selection into an integral part of the championship race, Saturday's pick session turned into an event.
``Where were you guys at Kansas?'' Ford asked the media gathered around a garage stall where a NASCAR official moderates the picks.
The entire affair goes back to the September race at Kansas, where Denny Hamlin crew chief Ford complained that Knaus broke an unwritten code by selecting the spot in front of them for Jimmie Johnson.
Ford got his revenge last week in Texas by selecting the stall in front of Johnson, and some believe it contributed to the poor performance from Johnson's crew that led to their midrace benching.
So the wait was on to see if the three championship contenders would choose stalls near each other in Sunday's race. Picking order is determined by qualifying, and since Hamlin was the highest qualifier of the three, Ford went first.
He took spot 18, which had open slots in front and behind, then waited to see what the competition would do. Knaus got his turn three picks later, and chose to go to the back of pit road, far away from Hamlin, in spot 39.
Drama denied.
Or was it?
As the process played out, Ford soon found himself blocked in by the teammates of the championship contenders. Dale Earnhardt Jr., a teammate of Johnson's, was given the spot in front of Hamlin, while Kevin Harvick teammate Jeff Burton got the slot behind Hamlin.
Either driver could make getting in and out of the pits difficult for Hamlin on Sunday.
Johnson and Harvick are in much better shape.
Harvick has Dave Blaney in the spot in front of him, and if Blaney attempts to run the entire race, he'll likely not be on the lead lap and thus won't be on pit road at the same time as Harvick.
Bobby Labonte has the pit stall between Johnson and Harvick, and Paul Menard has the stall behind Johnson.
Based on past performance, there's a solid chance Harvick won't have cars surrounding him on the lead lap - or in the pits - for much of the race.
NOT BUDGING: Even after a civil conversation with Jeff Burton about their accident under caution at Texas, Jeff Gordon is not accepting the explanation he was given.
``I'm never going to agree with what went on at Texas,'' Gordon said. ``We had a good conversation. I have a lot of respect and I always have and I may have lost some for him, but I still really respect him. It was stupid what he did. You can't get in behind a guy and get caught up in it yourself. That's the part that I'll never understand.
``I told him, 'I will never understand how I got wrecked under caution and how you got caught up in it at the same time.' If you are going to wreck somebody, it's easy to do and usually pretty easy to stay out of it yourself.''
Gordon drove alongside Burton under caution to show his displeasure over how Burton had raced him moments earlier. Seconds later. Burton turned Gordon and both cars hit the wall.
Burton has insisted he wasn't trying to wreck Gordon on purpose.
``I went to let him know, 'Hey, I got it,' but also I didn't understand why he was as mad as he seemed to be,'' Burton said. ``That was just frustration. Then the rest of it was just - I honestly don't know how to explain what happened after that, I really don't. That is really it.''
The drivers scuffled after the race as a furious Gordon charged after Burton and gave him a hard two-handed shove. They were locked up for a moment before a pair of NASCAR officials stepped in.
``I didn't punch him, we shoved, we shouted and we got our frustration out, but we didn't cross over the line, either one of us, in my opinion,'' Gordon said.
The scrap earned Gordon some ribbing at last week's Country Music Awards, where he was a presenter.
``How about ol' scrappy here this weekend,'' country music star Brad Paisley said to him. ``You want to lay one on me?''
``I'll take you down, man,'' Gordon said.
EDWARDS ON TOP: Carl Edwards will try to snap his 70-race winless streak Sunday at Phoenix, where he's dominated every on-track session leading into the race.
Edwards set a track record in winning the pole, and paced all three practice sessions.
``This is the fastest car we've had for a long time and it's nice,'' he said. ``I like it a lot. Hopefully, we can run well on the long run because that's going to be the true test. I feel like we're pretty decent and now we just have to go do it.''
Edwards has not won a Cup race since the 2008 season finale at Homestead.
BABY WATCH: Ryan Newman is the latest driver in limbo - he's awaiting the birth of his first child, and needs a standby driver just in case the moment comes when he's behind the wheel.
Krissie Newman is expecting the birth of the couple's daughter on Nov. 26, and didn't make the trip to Phoenix. Ron Hornaday is the standby driver, and turned some laps in Saturday's final practice as a precautionary measure.
Asked what he'll do if he gets the call from home during the race, Newman didn't sound entirely committed to getting out of the car.
``Honestly, I don't know. It all depends on the timing of things,'' he said. ``Obviously, if I am in the car, another few laps may not hurt. I'm just saying. I have a couple people in line to delay the message as it gets to me, just in case.
``Obviously, that is really important in my life. Our first baby. I don't know if you can say first baby or last baby or whatever, but, it is important to be there. To be there for her.''

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