News & Media

Menzer: Edwards, Stewart creating a battle for the ages

November 08, 2011, Joe Menzer,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- From verbal jabs to on-track action, the top two have entertained immensely

As he walked through the lobby of the media center following Sunday's second-place finish in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards did a double-take and stopped.

Though pressed for time because he was on his way to yet another interview -- this one on television -- Edwards lingered for a moment at the locker that had been set up for him prior to the race by Eddie Gossage, president of TMS. In addition to the boxing robe and boxing gloves that had been placed in it, Edwards noticed that fellow driver Tony Stewart had added a few new items -- including a pink teddy bear and a pink Barbie doll coloring book.


Tony Stewart crushed the field at Texas and closed the gap on points leader Carl Edwards to three points.

"Hey, I appreciate this. I'm going to take this stuff for my kids," Edwards said.

Then he spotted a life-size cutout bearing the likenesses of Stewart and himself, procured a black permanent marker -- and proceeded to leave the driver known as Smoke with a present of his own. Edwards carefully drew facial hair on Stewart's likeness and added a few other editorial touches before hustling off to his next appointed round.

And so a night of epic racing -- and weekend-long, off-the-track gamesmanship -- between the two closest competitors left standing in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup drew to a proper close.

Less than an hour earlier, Stewart had moved to within three points of Edwards in the Chase standings by driving the only car to finish in front of Edwards' No. 99 Ford on the 1.5-mile track. That concluded a weekend in which the two drivers and their cars were bunched together on practice time sheets, in qualifying and throughout Sunday's 500-mile, 334-lap event.

"It was a pretty awesome race, yes," Edwards said. "The coolest thing would be if this thing could come down to the last lap [of the final race] at Homestead, battling door-to-door. That would be unreal. I stuck my head in the door [of Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet] after the race and said, 'Good job.' And he said, 'This is how it's supposed to be.' And that's fun.

"We race because we want to compete and beat guys at their best -- and right now, they're obviously at their best. So that's good."

Turning up the heat

Sunday's win was Stewart's fourth in eight Chase races, with only next Sunday's race at Phoenix and the following Sunday's race at Homestead remaining. He's obviously the hottest driver with the hottest team, and his swagger wasn't slowed Sunday in Texas.

It was about all anyone was talking about in the Sprint Cup garage until the Kyle Busch incident blew up, and Busch was parked by NASCAR for the remainder of the weekend following his deliberate wrecking under caution of Ron Hornaday during Friday night's Camping World Truck Series race.

"When everything happened with the No. 18 car [of Busch], it seemed like all the media disappeared from us," said Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief. "Every camera was in our stall for the first practice [Friday], but after that everybody kind of disappeared."

That gave Grubb and Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief, an idea.

"Bob and I were joking [that] I'm going to get up in your face, point my finger at you and say, 'What are you having for dinner tonight?' We thought that would bring at least some of the cameras back to us," said Grubb, laughing.

"This is fun. We have fun with it. But we're all there to get the job done. We're not there to do the pomp and circumstance and all these other things. We want to do what we've got to do to make fast race cars."

Indeed, the top two teams in the standings were far and away two of the best at it Sunday. Stewart led a total of seven times for a race-high 173 laps -- and even though Edwards led only three times for 14 laps and was almost always forced to play catch-up to the No. 14 in his No. 99 machine, Edwards never was very far behind.

At the end, Edwards came up a bit short but came over his team radio and said, "We wanted to win. It just didn't work out -- but keep your heads up, guys. We still have the points lead. They still have to catch us."

Yes, but Stewart reiterated again afterward that he believes his team is up to that task. He stated again that they will determine their own fate in his hunt for a third championship.

"I still stand firm that we're not counting on them to make mistakes. We're controlling our destiny," Stewart said. "[Sunday] is a perfect example of that. We're worried about what we're doing. We're not worried about what they're doing.

"We raced our race [Sunday]. That's what we intend to do the next two weeks. It's theirs to lose now. ... We did what we said we were going to do. We're going to take it if we want it. We took five points off the deficit [Sunday]. We have the ability to do that the next two weeks, too."

Surprise, surprise

Even though Stewart had boasted that he was coming for Edwards, even though Grubb has been saying since the start of the Chase that the 1.5-mile program for Stewart-Haas Racing had made great strides, Edwards admitted he was surprised at the speed Stewart was able to achieve on the Texas track. It was a place where Edwards had won three times previously, and he fully expected to pad his points lead -- not have a hefty five points shaved off it even though he finished second.

"He surprised me that he was as fast as they were here," Edwards said. "This is really our bread-and-butter, and we were really fast in practice [Saturday]. We were good in race trim. So they surprised me; they did their jobs well.

Who wins?

It's down to Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart -- who will win it all? Bill Kimm and Mark Aumann debate in Head2Head.

"Now we go to the big unknown in Phoenix -- and I think it makes Phoenix more important because we're both good at Homestead. And if we both run this well at Homestead, then it's kind of a wash."

Phoenix International Raceway is the great unknown because the 1-mile track has been repaved and reconfigured since the last race there in the spring. At Homestead, both drivers have enjoyed past success on what is another 1.5-mile layout. Both have won twice there, although Edwards has a 5.2 average finish in seven starts compared to a 12.0 average finish for Stewart in 12 career starts.

Stewart admitted following Sunday's latest triumph that he is enjoying himself immensely in this Chase, which commenced after he failed to win any of the season's 26 pre-Chase races. He said Sunday's battle with Edwards was as it should have been, toe-to-toe and door-to-door.

"It shows what this Chase is going to be about," Stewart said. "It's a good battle right now. I mean, this was a good race. We never really got that far away from each other. At the end, it was down to the two of us.

"If you're [NASCAR chairman and CEO] Brian France right now, I would say he's giddy. If not, he should be, because this is the perfect scenario. It's the perfect storm, so to speak, going into these last two weeks. That's what you want. This is about as exciting as it gets -- to have two guys that are down to three points [apart] with two weeks to go."

And as for Edwards' uncommissioned artwork on Stewart's cutout likeness?

"I saw that," Stewart said. "The bad thing is I look really bad to start with. He actually made me look a little bit better. I think he actually was a little too infatuated with me to be drawing on me. It kind of scares me that he was so concerned about it."

Then he laughed. Right now nothing is really scaring Smoke, who is literally breathing fire down Edwards' neck these days -- making the potential for the last two weeks of this long season mighty promising all the way around.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch all the highlights from the AAA Texas 500: