News & Media

Title contenders have relationship built on respect

November 12, 2011, David Caraviello,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- In many ways they are polar opposites, these two drivers from the extremes of the Midwest, as diverse as snarls and smiles or fitness and French fries. From their respective backgrounds to their waistlines to their car manufacturers, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are about as different as a pair of NASCAR racers can get. In a search for similarities, only their hometowns -- Columbia (Mo.) and Columbus (Ind.) -- sound close.

And yet, the hotly-contested battle for this year's Sprint Cup championship has revealed a little something about these two drivers who aren't really enemies, aren't really friends, and have so little in common. As intense and the endgame to this Chase has become, despite challenges thrown down on and off the race track, the two men in the center of it all are united by their respect for one another.

"I respect him a lot as a driver and as a person."


"If we can go beat him during the best Chase he has ever had, as a two-time champ, if we can beat him like that head-to-head there will be a lot of pride in that for us."


"I guess it's a friendly rivalry, if you even want to call it a rivalry," Stewart said at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday's penultimate round of the 2011 Chase. "I don't know what the true definition of rivalry is, but he's a good guy to be in a point battle with, for sure. I respect him a lot as a driver and as a person."

Their backgrounds are as diverse as their personalities. The sometimes-gruff Stewart was a star in the U.S. Auto Club's sprint, midget, and silver crown ranks, and won a championship in open-wheel racing before he moved into NASCAR. The typically-polished Edwards raced some silver crown cars himself, though long after Stewart left the circuit, but came up primarily in dirt modifieds and late models before he broke through in what's now called the Camping World Truck Series.

Stewart has two championships in NASCAR's premier division, while Edwards is still searching for his first. Still, it's easy to see the respect the two have for one another, whether they're talking about this championship hunt or interacting after a race.

"I think Tony is a guy I have looked up to a lot. He has done a lot of the things as a racer that racers all over the country can look up to," said Edwards, who at 31 is nine years younger than Stewart.

"I've learned a lot about Tony over the last couple years, and have come to respect him as a person. I would say we have a good, competitive relationship. For us, it is pretty neat to be holding off a two-time champ having the best Chase he has ever had. It is neat to be battling with him. If we can continue and hold him off and win this thing, if it truly comes down to the end like I believe it will, [and] I truly believe it will come down to the last lap at Homestead, that is going to feel good that it is Tony. It will feel good that it is a guy that has that many achievements in the garage, in racing."

No question, they've had their scrapes on the race track just like any other two drivers, but any old grudges have long since faded away. They don't exactly hang out together -- given the schedule demands drivers on the Sprint Cup tour face, it's difficult for any of them to really pal around. And even though Stewart threw his famous "he's not going to sleep for the next three weeks" line at Edwards after a victory two weeks ago at Martinsville that made this a two-man race, there's no bitterness between them. They both like dirt racing, and Edwards is a regular participant in Stewart's annual charity race at Eldora Speedway, the Ohio dirt track the Stewart-Haas driver owns.

"We get along with each other at the race track," Stewart said. "We've got the dirt racing that we've done together at Eldora, and stuff that we like. We talk about that stuff a lot."

If anything stands between them, it's the three points that separate the drivers in this championship race, which was made considerably closer by victories by Stewart over the past two weekends. Edwards has kept pace, finishing no worse than 11th in every playoff race, although he hasn't won since Las Vegas in March. That victory still pays dividends, though -- the three bonus points he earned for that triumph stand as his current margin over Stewart, who believes his four Chase wins have allowed him to take control of this title race even though he's still playing from behind.

"I feel like we are [in control], to be honest. I think we showed that last week," Stewart said, referring to his victory at Texas, where Edwards finished second. "We're not racing worrying about where they're at and what they're doing each day. We're worrying about our car, what we've got to do to be fast, what we've got to do to win races and I think we've responded to that with our actions on the race track and what we've done. So I would like to say we are right now. We've been able to battle back from a couple of really bad races in this Chase to be where we are at."

And yet, Edwards still has the points lead, which he's held for 20 weeks this year. "Tony's been unbelievable the last two weeks. Nobody can discount how strong they've been. But there's a little bit of pride on our side knowing that even as good as they have been with four wins in the Chase, we are still leading, beating them and will hold them to that level of performance. They are going to have to run that well to beat us," Edwards said.

"I feel that they have obviously had flashes of great speed, and have won four races, and we haven't. But the job that we have done, I am very proud of. We don't have trophies lined up, but the recoveries we have made and consistency we have shown and the ability to come back from really tough days, I wouldn't have been able to do it a year or two years ago. I am pretty proud of that. At the end of the day we are still leading the points. They have to overtake us and beat us."

In the garage area, opinions are mixed on who the championship favorite is right now. Denny Hamlin, last year's runner-up, believes Edwards has raced only as hard as has been necessary to keep Stewart at bay. "He still has the points lead, so I think he'll be fine, to be honest with you," Hamlin said. Kevin Harvick believes the momentum Stewart has from all those race victories is difficult to ignore.

"It's really all about the guy who gets on the hot streak during the last 10 weeks, and can complete that hot streak through the end of the season, and Tony has that right now," said Harvick, who placed third in last year's championship race. "If you look at it, it just doesn't even really seem possible that the No. 99 [car of Edwards] could even beat him with the momentum that Tony has right now."

Although the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway looms next weekend, it could all come down to Phoenix, a reconfigured and resurfaced track that drivers are having to learn all over again. Edwards gained some confidence late Friday by posting the second-fastest speed in final practice, while Stewart was 36th. Whatever happens on the Desert Mile, it's difficult to believe the two drivers won't come out of Sunday's race with the same degree of respect they had for one another going in.

"I believe we do both respect each other," Edwards said. "We have gone through times where we did not like each other, and then we have gone dirt racing together and done the stuff at Eldora, and that has been a lot of fun. And now it would just mean a lot, and does mean a lot, that it is him we are battling. If we can go beat him during the best Chase he has ever had, as a two-time champ, if we can beat him like that head-to-head there will be a lot of pride in that for us."