The Scenario Tells Us This One Might Be One For The Ages
You’ve gotta like this.
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will be decided this weekend between two drivers – those left standing after nine races in the Chase- separated by so few points it is virtually impossible to predict who will win – although I’m sure many of us will try.
Carl Edwards, the Roush Fenway Racing driver who has held the points lead for the last five weeks, comes into the Ford 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway with only a three-point lead over Tony Stewart.
Stewart, who drives for the Stewart-Haas team he co-owns, is in contention for his third career championship based upon the four victories he’s earned in the Chase.
In the past there have been championship scenarios as close. And a few of them featured as many as three competitors in an agonizingly tight battle.
In 2004, Kurt Busch beat Jimmie Johnson for the title by eight points – the closest margin in NASCAR history. In 2005, Stewart won his first by 35 points over Greg Biffle and Edwards.
When Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship in 2010, he overcame a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin at Homestead to take the title by 39 points.
This time, things are a little bit different. This will be the first championship decided under NASCAR’s revised Chase format that, among other things, was intended to be simpler and easier to follow.
I can’t help but think that while the goal of simplicity was one thing, for NASCAR, it would be even more important if the new system produced a tense championship contest similar to several in the past. It has.
Ironically, Edwards was three points ahead of Stewart when the Chase began in Chicago on Sept. 19. At the time, however, he was fifth in points and Stewart was ninth. Edwards’ victory in Las Vegas in March made the difference.
At the time Stewart was winless and groused that his team wasn’t performing well enough to be in the Chase.
That changed quickly. Stewart won the first two races in the Chase and climbed to No. 1 in points, three spots and 14 points ahead of Edwards.
Then Stewart cooled down and the consistent Edwards took the points lead after his fifth-place finish at Kansas.
Stewart lit the jets again with another pair of consecutive victories at Martinsville and Texas. But he couldn’t wrest the lead away from Edwards, who finished ninth and second, respectively.
They were three points apart going into Phoenix. Afterward, as hard as it might be to believe, the margin remained the same.
For a time it appeared Stewart might cruise to victory No. 5 in the Kobalt Tools 500. He led the most laps to earn valuable bonus points.
But things changed after the last pit stop. The handling in Stewart’s car changed. It became too loose in the turns.
Edwards, meanwhile, held steady on the track, taking no chances as he finished second to winner Kasey Kahne. Stewart was a position behind and, because he had led the most laps, he matched Edwards with 43 points.
Had circumstances been different and Stewart won the race, he would now have the points lead and added momentum.
As it is the two remain three points apart for the second consecutive week.
Certainly Stewart’s competitive turnaround at the start of the Chase has been highly beneficial. He’s been able to parlay victories and bonus points into a near-deadlock for the championship. His four wins also provide him with the tiebreaker, if needed. It’s something else in his favor.
Edwards hasn’t won in the Chase but his consistency has been remarkable. His worst finish has been an 11th at Talladega. His average finish is 5.2, which is a clear example of why he’s risen to first in points.
If he wins or finishes second at Homestead he will best Johnson’s average finish of 5.0 in the 2007 Chase.
NASCAR tells us the only way Edwards is guaranteed the title is if he wins at Homestead. With the three-point margin, no other result gives Edwards the championship, regardless of where Stewart finishes.
NASCAR added that Edwards’ lead translates into about 13 points under the previous system, the closest margin ever going into the final race of the Chase. It’s also the third closest since the inception of a points-based system in 1975.
Incidentally, if Stewart wins at Homestead he’ll clinch the title, even if Edwards is second and leads the most laps. That would leave the drivers tied in points and Stewart owns the tiebreaker.
It’s likely the odds makers – who make a living absorbing facts and figures – would establish Edwards as the favorite.
He has won two of the last three races at Homestead. He drives a Ford and Ford has won seven of the 12 races held at the 1.5-mile track. Stewart competes in a Chevrolet, which has never won at Homestead.
Roush Fenway has fielded the winner in six of the last seven races at Homestead.
Yes, the odds are presently in Edwards’ favor – seemingly.
But in this championship scenario pressure is huge and emotions run high. Every step of car preparation will be intensely scrutinized – especially so at the track.
Edwards said the championship could come down to the last lap at Homestead. Given what we’ve seen over the past two weeks that is a distinct possibility.
Seems only fitting that it is the way it will be.
If so, you really gotta like that.