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Menzer: Did Smoke make the Chase a two-man race?

October 31, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Stewart's self-confidence at a high as he, Edwards head to some familiar tracks

Is it down to a two-man race now in the Chase for the Sprint Cup? If it is -- or even if it isn't -- can Brian Vickers manage to stay out of their way, and everyone else's?

Those were the burning questions lingering after Tony Stewart's rousing win Sunday in the wild and wooly Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

"It's funny to us because we never lose that feeling that we can win the championship. "

--DARIAN GRUBB

Stewart's victory -- his third in seven outings during this Chase -- pulled him to within eight points of leader Carl Edwards, who rallied for a ninth-place finish Sunday in part because of Vickers' penchant to bring out the caution by banging into people, or at least attempting to do so. Edwards gained several valuable positions toward the end of the race as a result of the slew of restarts, and Vickers arguably contributed to Stewart's win as well while hurting five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson's ultimately futile run at Victory Lane.

But whether or not Vickers, a non-Chaser, should have been black-flagged by NASCAR and parked for the afternoon is a discussion for another day. (Well, OK, let's just get it out of the way and say that, yes, it was ridiculous and it should have happened).

Meanwhile, there was Stewart's late charge to the front, aided by some adroit pit calls by crew chief Darian Grubb. Not to mention Stewart's bold proclamation afterward that he's in it to win it and Edwards better be looking over his shoulder to check where Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet is during the final three races of the season.

"He'd better be worried, that's all I'm going to say," Stewart said after the race. "He's not going to have an easy three weeks."

All hail Darian

Stewart was quick and effusive in his praise of Grubb following Sunday's latest Chase triumph. For a crew chief apparently under the gun heading into the Chase -- rumored to be in trouble as Stewart's 12-year streak of having won at least one race seemed in serious jeopardy -- it was another shot of sweet vindication.

With only the races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway, Grubb is bubbling over with as much confidence and momentum as his driver. And why not? They not only have the three victories to offset mediocre performances at Dover and Kansas earlier in the Chase, but also are about to visit three tracks they like very much.

"We all have the attitude that we feel we should be leading right now. We made the mistakes that gave up those points there in the third, fourth and fifth race," said Grubb, with the reference to the fifth race in the Chase being the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he and Stewart were left unhappy despite an eighth-place finish because they earlier had led 94 laps in the event. "We're ready to get back in this game and show everybody what we've got left."

Oh, they're already back in the game -- thanks in large part to the resilient, hard-working, affable Grubb, who especially enjoyed Sunday's win at Martinsville because the .533-mile track is only 22 miles removed from where he grew up in Floyd, Va.

"The first 200 laps, Darian was making changes," Stewart said of the No. 14 team's day at Martinsville. "We just couldn't get the car to respond to anything. He made some good changes the whole last half of the race that got us in the ballpark. Then he had two awesome pit calls with pit strategy that got us track position.

"The first time I screwed up and gave it away thinking I had a flat tire [forcing him to pit when he had been leading, only to learn he didn't have a flat]. Then at the end of the day, he got us that track position back with another great call. That is what truly gave us the shot to have that opportunity at the end of the day.

"For a guy that grew up 22 miles from here, he had more than an All-Star day. He made the right calls that gave us that opportunity, kept making changes. ... When you win with the obstacles that we overcame, that's what makes winning races like this so special."

Two-man race?

So is the Chase down to a two-man race? While conventional logic may dictate that it's too early to say and none of the other 10 Chasers have even so much as been mathematically eliminated as yet, a strong argument could be made for it.

Both Stewart and Edwards have strong records at the tracks they will visit the rest of the way, making it highly unlikely that either will slip much. The likelihood that both will stumble somewhere over these final three, thus possibly enabling someone else to inch markedly closer, is even more of a long shot.

Certainly two candidates who remain in the running at this juncture are Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, who are 21 and 27 points, respectively, off the pace set by Edwards.

But in 19 career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart has one win and a 13.2 average finish; in 13 career starts there, Edwards has three wins and a 16.5 average finish. At Phoenix, Stewart weighs in with one win and an 11.5 average finish in 19 starts vs. one win and a 13.0 average finish for Edwards in 14 starts.

Homestead could be the great equalizer -- should Stewart continue to make small gains at the other two venues. Edwards absolutely loves the 1.5-mile layout, owning two wins, four top-five and six top-10 finishes in seven career starts. His average finish there is a remarkable 5.2. Stewart is no slouch at the place, either, with two wins and a 12.4 average finish in 12 career starts.

Another factor is that the Phoenix track has been repaved and reconfigured, and lurks as a true wild card over these final weeks.

But no one is teeming with more confidence and more momentum than the No. 14 team of Stewart and Grubb. And they want everyone -- but especially Edwards -- to know it.

"It's funny to us because we never lose that feeling that we can win the championship. It's just that the media doesn't pay attention to it," Grubb said. "We work as hard every week. We're doing 80-hour work weeks every week. It doesn't matter whether we finish 34th or first. I'm proud of the guys for doing that. Everybody shows up for work every day with their game face on no matter what circumstances they're going through and we get the job done."

Thus, with three to go, it could be down to two. And one might have the edge over the other.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.