Edwards Holds On, Stewart Presses And It’s Likely To Go Down To T
If Carl Edwards wins the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, believe me, he will have earned it.
It’s likely he will have done so after holding off drivers who pursued him like starving wolves.
Presently, one of those drivers is Tony Stewart, who threw down the gauntlet with snarling force after he won the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
The victory lofted Stewart into second place in the point standings, only eight points behind Edwards with three races remaining.
Stewart has now won three races in the Chase – he won the first two of 10 events at Chicagoland and New Hampshire – and now, after Martinsville, has an excellent opportunity to win his third career championship.
In a wild, crash-filled Martinsville event, Stewart fell out of the 20 repeatedly only to come back into contention.
He was second behind leader Jimmie Johnson on the race’s final restart with three laps to go. One lap from the finish Stewart moved to the outside of the track – where there had been little grip throughout the race – and made the pass.
Johnson might have won the race almost immediately thereafter with a “bump and run” pass, but the five-time champion chose not to make the move.
Although Stewart has two previous wins at the track, he hasn’t been particularly productive at Martinsville. He came into the Tums Fast Relief 500 with an average finish of 13.9.
When Stewart got himself in position to win on the final restart, he figured there was only one way to do it.
“To be honest I would have rather restarted third, but Jeff (Gordon) got to us and I hit the curb off of four before the restart,” he said. “Jeff got underneath us going into one, so I ran that second lane and pulled two car lengths and said, ‘Wow, this lane has a little bit more grip than I thought it had up there.’
“The key was just getting into one beside Jimmie, and not letting him run up the race track like he did Jeff Burton and holding him tight and letting myself have the opportunity to at least get through there.”
Edwards, meanwhile, survived the Martinsville mayhem and wound up with a ninth-place finish at a track on which he has struggled.
Edwards knew he was vulnerable to his challengers at Martinsville, where he’s never won and has an average finish of 16.9.
But with his sixth top-10 finish in seven Chase races – best among all competitors – the Roush Fenway Racing team driver maintained the points lead he has now held for five weeks.
“That’s just a gift to have finished in ninth and have the day we had,” Edwards said.
“We were so bad. With about 200 laps to go I was
thinking, ‘OK, the Cardinals didn’t give up the other night.’ That was a little motivation. ‘The Missouri Tigers didn’t give up the other night.’ That was more motivation.
“I had become OK with the fact that we were probably gonna finish 20th or 25th. I was thinking
already about Texas and how we were gonna have to go there and everything we were gonna do, but my guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate.
“I’m just glad we can move on.”
Teammate Matt Kenseth, who was second in points, 14 behind Edwards when the race began, was one of many involved in numerous on-track incidents.
A crippled Kenseth wound up in 31st place and unlike his teammate, did not survive at Martinsville where he, too, had a mediocre performance record.
As result Kenseth fell to fifth in points, 36 in arrears and faces huge odds to win a title.
Drivers in the Chase took the top five positions in the Tums Fast Relief 500. Johnson was the runnerup, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon was third, Kevin Harvick finished fourth and four-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin was fifth.
However, some of the top-five Chase finishers, and others, won’t figure in the championship scenario over the final three races – or at best have only a slight chance to win the title.
Even though he moved from seventh to sixth in points with his near-victory at Martinsville, Johnson is 43 points out of the lead – so daunting it would appear he will not win a sixth straight title.
Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski came to Martinsville third in points, 18 behind, but saw what surely wound have been a top-five finish ruined when he was spun by Hamlin, who was whacked by Dale Earnhardt Jr., late in the race.
Keselowski wound up 17th and is now fourth in points, 27 behind with an uphill climb to the title.
Kyle Busch was sixth in points prior to Martinsville and dominated the first half of the race only to become one of the many crash victims – and that of a pit error in which he lost his left-front wheel because the lug nuts were not tightened.
He finished 27th and is now seventh in points, 57 behind and, most likely, has to wait until next year.
Like Stewart, Richard Childress Racing’s Harvick came away from Martinsville as a serious title contender.
With his fourth-place run, he moved from fifth to third in points, 21 behind Edwards and, therefore, still in the hunt.
Here’s the scenario as the Chase enters its final three races:
Edwards holds on, but barely, after Stewart’s victory, which makes the Stewart Haas Racing owner/driver his most pressing challenger.
Harvick is still in the mix in third place, 21 points down. Keselowski, in fourth and 27 down, has a chance.
Realistically, it’s all down to four drivers at best. Before Martinsville, it was also considered that only four drivers remained in the championship mix.
If it all comes down to Edwards and Stewart, none of us should be surprised.
That is not lost on Stewart.
“Carl Edwards had better be real worried,” he said. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
“He’s wound up,” Edwards responded. “He won the race. We’ll see what happens at Texas. I feel
like we’re gonna go there and have as good a shot to win as anyone.”