Two Drivers, Two Races – So Which One Has The Edge?
If we can assume the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will be decided between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart – and, given that they are separated by a mere three points in the standings, it’s a logical assumption – then the question is, which driver has the edge as the season approaches its final two races?
That’s tough to answer because they have come to the impending showdown by following two decidedly different competitive paths.
And, if they continue to race as they have thus far in the Chase, the whole thing could come down to the last lap at Homestead.
Even though he has not won since March at Las Vegas, Edwards has been the model of consistency. He has finished among the top 10 in all but one of the eight races in the Chase. His worst finish to date has been 11th at Talladega.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver entered the Chase fifth in the point standings and climbed to No. 1 after Kansas in early October, the fourth race in the Chase. He’s been there since.
During his ascension Edwards finished fourth at Chicago, eighth at New Hampshire, third at Dover and fifth Kansas. That shows how beneficial consistency can be.
Stewart, meanwhile, came into the Chase ninth in points and admitted he was lucky to be in the “playoffs.”
He hadn’t won a race all season and didn’t think his Stewart-Haas Racing team had performed well enough to be in the Chase – much less win the title.
Really? Things changed quickly. Stewart caught fire. He won the first two Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire to rise to No. 1 in points.
But after a 25th-place run at Dover followed by a 15th-place finish at Kansas, Stewart fell to seventh in points, only 19 behind Edwards.
Stewart returned to top-10 form at Charlotte (eighth) and Talladega (seventh) and rose to fourth in points, still 19 behind Edwards.
Then Stewart went “streaking” again with victories at Martinsville and Texas. Had Edwards not maintained his consistency – ninth at Martinsville and a runnerup to Stewart at Texas – “Smoke” might well be the point leader right now.
With four victories he’s already matched the Chase record established, twice, by Jimmie Johnson.
In the Chase, Edwards has steadily plowed forward with a series of high finishes, which he achieved by the performance of his team and the ability, or fortune, to avoid mistakes and problems.
Stewart, on the other hand, rose to No. 1 by doing what always bodes well for a championship – winning.
Then he stumbled and had he continued to do so, he might well have fallen out of contention.
But he quickly rebounded into a challenger’s role with two more consecutive victories.
It’s apparent Stewart has momentum now but let’s not forget that Edwards is still the points leader.
If Stewart keeps winning the title will be his, obviously.
But if he slips and, at the least, Edwards maintains his consistency, Edwards will be the man at the head table at the NASCAR Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas.
No doubt this is a tense situation. The championship could be determined by a mistake - a single, even small, slipup by either driver.
Pit crews for Edwards and Stewart have performed admirably and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to do so.
I’m not sure either one of the remaining tracks, Phoenix or Homestead, greatly favors one driver over the other.
The new racing surface and configuration at Phoenix make this weekend’s Kobalt Tools 500 a new challenge for all the teams.
Car preparation will be vital, and if either Stewart’s or Edwards’ team finds an edge at the “new” track, it could make all the difference in the final outcome.
As for Homestead, one driver doesn’t seem to hold a distinct advantage over the other. They have both won twice, Stewart in 1999-2000 and Edwards in 2008 and last year.
Undoubtedly, from here on out, the best strategy for both drivers is simple: Keep doing what got you here.
Believe me, they know it.
While Edwards admits Stewart’s bunch might be feeling pretty comfortable to be in the position they are, he said that he’s seen teams make runs and fall away more than once.
Edwards adds that it doesn't really matter what Stewart does. The Roush Fenway team is still the points leader and as long as it does the best it can do over the next two races, it will remain there.
As for his team, Stewart would also agree that doing the best it can is sound strategy – especially since its best has resulted in victories.
Stewart notes that his team simply has to keep doing what it has been doing and let others fret over it.
Edwards and Stewart have the right competitive philosophy - which is to be concerned with their own efforts above anything else.
No one can predict what might happen in the next two races and, indeed, there might be some unforeseen, unfortunate incident to change the Chase’s dramatic scenario.
All it takes is an error in the pits or on the track, a mechanical failure or simply to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However, no one should be surprised if this year’s championship is not determined until the checkered flag falls at Homestead.
Presently, the evidence indicates that it’s likely that’s how it is going to be.