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Caraviello: Edwards now has momentum to go along with lead

November 14, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Despite leading in points, Carl Edwards spent the past few weeks chasing down Tony Stewart on the track. (Autostock)

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- When championships are on the line, Tony Stewart is a cold-blooded closer. The star driver has only been in two previous NASCAR title races that went down to the final weeks, and he's won them both, wrapping up his 2002 and '05 triumphs with almost clinical execution. Although he finished second in 2001, he was never really in the hunt -- Jeff Gordon had such a sizable lead, that crown was clinched with a race still remaining in the season. Even in his IndyCar championship campaign of 1997, the bulldogged Stewart bit down on first place in the standings late in the year, and never let go.

So it comes as no surprise how the two-time champion has wedged himself into the thick of this year's Chase, winning four races to seize momentum from Carl Edwards even while still playing from behind in the points. It's all been a bit more theatric than we've perhaps come to expect from Stewart, a Schlitz-and-burgers type of guy if there ever was one, but the result is still the same. He assumed control of the race without ever leading it, making his adversary in the No. 99 car look defensive by comparison, using victories and swagger to defy overall numbers that pointed to Edwards as the best driver this season.


"I think we both have momentum. We both had two really good weeks in a row. ... It's just about getting four more points than he does. That's all that matters."

--TONY STEWART


_______________________

"I think we will go into Homestead trying to sit on the pole and win the race and put a dot on this championship."

--BOB OSBORNE

And Sunday, the choke-hold was within sight. On a resurfaced and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway that had some drivers downright scared, Stewart cruised like he was riding a Harley-Davidson on a sightseeing trip to the Grand Canyon. Stewart moved to the front early, clinched the most-laps-led bonus for the second consecutive week, and broke his telling and contended radio silence only to rave about what a fabulous automobile he had at his command.

* Video: Stewart goes three-wide to take lead

"It feels reeeeeeallllly nice right now," Stewart purred to crew chief Darian Grubb as he enjoyed a 1-second lead on the field 67 laps into the race.

You could see it all unfolding, right there on a brilliant Sunday afternoon in the Estrella Mountains, this gate-crasher of a race car driver officially taking command of a points race he had believed to be his anyway. Edwards' 20 weeks atop the Sprint Cup standings, his 11 consecutive finishes of 11th or better, his amazing consistency and laudable perseverance -- none of it seemed to matter anymore. For two weeks, Stewart had talked and acted like a driver in complete control of this Chase. Sunday at Phoenix, he was on the cusp of doing it for real.

But the desert has a strange way of playing tricks on the mind, of generating mirages that are not as real as they seem. We witnessed that in this same race last year, when Denny Hamlin appeared on the brink of blowing open the championship race and ending Jimmie Johnson's reign atop the series, and then we rubbed our eyes and saw the No. 48 car stretch a fuel run to the end and earn the driver inside the moniker of Five-Time. So it was Sunday, when Stewart was exceptional, again -- but Edwards was just a little bit better, and despite four race wins in the Chase, the No. 14 team was ultimately denied the one victory it might have needed to win this championship.

* Final Laps: Edwards finishes ahead of Stewart

Phoenix ended with Edwards second and Stewart third, and the two still separated by the three points that stood between them coming to the Valley of the Sun, that margin courtesy of the bonus points Edwards earned through his lone victory this season at another desert outpost, Las Vegas. Everyone else has been eliminated, making this just the kind of close, two-man race NASCAR had hoped for under this simplified points format. But despite all that, despite leading 160 laps Sunday, in the aftermath Stewart had only one thing on his mind.

"I'm just thinking of the three points," he said.

With good reason, given that they loom much larger now, with only one race remaining, and that on what statistically is one of Edwards' best tracks, a Homestead-Miami Speedway where the Roush Fenway driver has won three times and owns an average finish of 5.7 -- best among current drivers. Anything can still happen, of course, and Edwards still needs a win in South Florida to clinch his first Cup title regardless of what Stewart does. But these drivers have been neck-in-neck down the stretch run, following in one another's tire tracks, earning the exact same number of points in the Chase, finishing within a position of each other the past two weekends. The idea that one can run off and hide from the other seems about as farfetched as contending at Homestead in an airboat.

* Press Pass: Edwards turns attention to Homestead | Stewart enjoying close battle

Stewart owns the tiebreaker given that he has more wins. But Phoenix marked the first time in four races that Edwards had finished ahead of his pursuer, a feat that for the time being, at least, stifled all talk of Edwards looking tentative, and impeded Stewart's charge perhaps just enough. Friday, Stewart had talked of feeling in control of the championship chase. By Sunday evening, his tone had changed.

"I think we both have momentum," the two-time NASCAR champion said. "We both had two really good weeks in a row. I still think our mile-and-a-half program has come a long way this summer. You look at how we ran at Chicago, Kentucky, Charlotte, Texas last week. We've been good on the mile-and-a-halfs. I'm excited about it. I like Homestead. It's a place that we had a lot of success when it was flat. We haven't got that win with it banked. I like the way that track races right now. I'm pretty excited about it. I don't know where to handicap it. Doesn't matter to me. It's just about getting four more points than he does. That's all that matters."

Stewart has won twice in Homestead, but both of those victories came more than a decade ago, before progressive banking was added to a 1.5-mile oval that had been nearly board flat. Edwards has won two of the past three races there, including last year's, and his Roush team has at times been dominant at the place. The edge Edwards enjoys is razor-thin, and he's still in a position where a dropped lug nut or a kiss off the wall could cost him the three or four finishing positions he needs to win the title. These are two competitors battling at a very high level. But clearly, momentum has shifted. The handling on Stewart's car deteriorated over the final stretch Sunday, Edwards was denied a victory only by a strong effort from Kasey Kahne, and the No. 99 team heads to a favorable track with a narrow points lead and a championship on the line.

"We will go there and try to repeat what we did last year," said Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief. "I feel like we have a good opportunity to do that this year. The car had the speed to do it [Sunday]. ... I think we will go into Homestead trying to sit on the pole and win the race and put a dot on this championship, hopefully."

Stewart called the title race as it stands a dead heat, but that might be wishful thinking from a driver who has as many top-five finishes at Homestead as Edwards has victories. Of course, it would be a shock if the No. 14 team didn't defy that history and make a charge toward the front, just as it did a week ago in Texas. Still, there seems no better place for Edwards to try and wrap up his long-awaited first championship on NASCAR's premier series.

Well, maybe not. "There's some dirt tracks I grew up on that would be fine with me," Edwards said.

"I have one in Ohio we can use," countered Stewart, who owns Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.

"I'm not doing that," Edwards said. And with good reason, given that he now has not just the points lead, but also momentum in a championship battle that might not be quite as close at it appears. After all, the desert can make you see things.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch highlights of Edwards' Chase:

Watch highlights of Stewart's Chase:

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