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Track Smack: Stewart will bring heat, but it's Edwards' title to lose

November 17, 2011, ,

All Smackers agree: Stewart will bring the heat, but it's Edwards' title to lose

1. It's Track Smack, championship edition. We'll cut right to the (last race of the) Chase: What happens Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

David Caraviello: My gut feeling is, that Carl Edwards wins the championship by winning the race. He and Tony Stewart have been running at such an exceptionally high level the past few weeks, both of them right in each others' tire tracks, that I'd be surprised if anything else happens. Carl wins, Tony finishes somewhere in the top five, and Edwards claims that long-awaited first title in NASCAR's premier division. Could be an electric moment if it unfolds that way.

Joe Menzer: I can hear it already. You're going to say I flip-flop more than Mitt Romney. But after saying a couple of weeks ago that Tony Stewart was my pick, I have to say that what Carl Edwards and the No. 99 team did at Phoenix to stay ahead in the points heading into Homestead, perhaps Carl's favorite track of them all, may have been enough to set him up for his first championship. I am now picking Carl.

Mark Aumann: One guy gets a big trophy and the other doesn't. But in all seriousness, I think this is Carl's to lose. His record at Homestead is exemplary. Not to say Tony's is not, but Carl has the best average finish there of any driver. Of course, don't forget what happened in the first Chase, when Kurt Busch had all kinds of crazy happen. It could very well turn into crisis mode for both these guys if something goes wrong early. But at this point, both teams are at the top of their games. That's perhaps what makes this the most interesting finale since 1992.

Joe Menzer: No question about that, Mark. It's much closer than, say, for instance, the way I whipped Bill Kimm in the NASCAR.COM Fantasy Live Showdown game, where I've already clinched the championship. Tony has some decent numbers at Homestead as well -- but Carl's career numbers at the place are simply amazing: In seven career starts, the only time he's finished out of the top eight was in his very first start there. He's won two of the last three with an average finish of 5.2. He's going to be awfully hard to beat.

David Caraviello: Wow, Menzer. I guess we can predict what kind of footwear you'll be wearing in South Florida this weekend. Aren't you a charter member of the Stewart bandwagon? What changed?

"If you're Tony -- and you've won four times -- you have to wonder what it'll take for the No. 99 team to crack."


Joe Menzer: Here's what changed in my mind: I still think Tony will put the heat on and make Carl earn it. But I thought Tony was going to take the points lead at Phoenix. And he had a great car, a fine day. But Carl took his best shot and finished ahead of him in the end. Now that he heads into Homestead still with the lead, I don't think anyone should pick against Carl.

Mark Aumann: I've heard of flip-flops referred to as thongs, too. But I don't think anyone wants to see Joe in that.

David Caraviello: Well, there's a mental image I did not need. Listen, the past numbers at Homestead are what they are. But let's be honest, I thought Carl's past history at Texas was enough to give him the edge there, too, and look what happened. The deal is now, I don't know if Tony can separate himself from Carl enough at a track where Edwards runs so well. I expect nothing less than for the two of them to be shadowing one another the entire race, just like they've bee doing the last few weeks. Maybe the other 41 drivers should go race at Hialeah Speedway or someplace. The spotlight is going to be on two guys.

Mark Aumann: Congrats, Joe, on your fantasy triumph. I hope you bring the trophy to the track this weekend. I'd also suggest bringing a good pair of walking shoes, based on how far it is around the speedway. But yeah, David and I discussed this at Phoenix and concur: Tony needed to break service at Phoenix and take some sort of lead into Homestead. Instead, they scored the same amount of points and it seems like Tony's going to have to play from behind here. And too bad Hialeah closed down. That's a race I'd like to have seen!

Joe Menzer: Well, he is going to have to play from behind -- because he's still three points behind. That's even after leading the most laps and having the dominant car much of the day at Phoenix, so it's sort of like Carl took Tony's best shot and the points leader is still standing. As for the Fantasy Cup (that's what we call it), no way I'm bringing it anywhere near you guys. You might try to steal it -- plus, it weighs a good 10 pounds and I don't want to lug it through airport security!

David Caraviello: Thankfully getting away from the subject of Menzer in beach attire, I agree with both of you -- I thought Phoenix was the one race Tony had to have, to take the lead from Carl and put all the pressure on the No. 99 team going to the finale. Like Mark mentioned, a wheel can still come loose and anything can happen, but these two have been racing one another at such a high level for long, I doubt it. Tony's been acting for weeks as if he's in control of this thing, and backed it up by outrunning Edwards. At Phoenix, that situation flipped (or flopped). As close as they are, I still think that gives Edwards just enough of a window.

Mark Aumann: You know, the conventional wisdom year-in and year-out is that everyone in the Chase will have at least one stinker of a race. And it didn't happen with Edwards this season -- at least nine races into a 10-race Chase. If you're Tony -- and you've won four times -- you have to wonder what it'll take for the No. 99 team to crack.

David Caraviello: So, we're all in agreement that it's going to be Carl on Sunday? You know what that means. Tony will make a great champion.

Watch: All the highlights of the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix

2. If Tony Stewart were to win a third Cup Series title this weekend, where would that accomplishment stand in NASCAR history?

David Caraviello: OK, other guys have clearly won more, but if Tony wins this, I think the accomplishment would be bigger than just sheer numbers. This would be three titles spread over the better part of a decade, and really under three different championship formats -- the old points system, the first incarnation of the Chase, and now this more simplified Chase. That's not a bad span right there. It shows a tremendous amount of longevity and flexibility on Tony's part as a driver, and would probably be enough for me to give him an edge over Waltrip and Yarborough (sorry Darrell and Cale) on the all-time list.

Mark Aumann: Let's see. Winner under the old points, the old Chase and the new Chase. What's next? Fantasy Showdown? Joe can take him.

Chase conclusion

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Joe Menzer: Well, it's a pretty simple question and answer here. He'd be the ninth guy to win three or more championships. All of them either already are or soon will be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Of course, I think Tony already has secured a future spot in the Hall -- win or lose this championship.

David Caraviello: Wow. Always a deep thinker, that Joe Menzer:.

Mark Aumann: We're talking about the highest level of the sport of stock car racing, and to win the title three times puts him in pretty rare company. Gordon, Johnson, Yarborough, Lee Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, Richard Petty. And Stewart. And in an era of specialization, Tony is perhaps the A.J. Foyt of his day -- as capable in any form of motorsports as any driver of his generation. Sprint cars, dirt cars, IndyCars, sports car, stock cars. The dude can drive the wheels off anything.

David Caraviello: This isn't just about Hall of Fame elections, people. This is about a legacy. A lot of drivers have a spurt -- they win a lot over a certain period of time, and then things change and they don't win again. Tony wins this, he's right up there with Jeff Gordon in terms of his ability to excel in different eras, against different drivers, and under different championship formats. That to me would be enough to put his potential three titles a step above those of others who have won the same number.

Mark Aumann: David Pearson would put his cigarette out in the palm of your hand for that comment, David. Of course, Stewart would be completely at home in that era, in my opinion. Of anybody in the series, he's the throwback guy. But you're right, from a legacy standpoint, Smoke has proven himself across different eras, different cars and different point systems.

A happy Alan Kulwicki hoists the championship trophy. (Racing One/Getty)

Against all odds

Evan with a title on Sunday, Caraviello says Stewart wouldn't match Kulwicki's feat as an owner/driver in 1992.

Joe Menzer: I don't know if I agree that he'd be a step ahead of the likes of Darrell Waltrip, Yarborough, Pearson and Lee Petty. They all have legacies that are uniquely their own. And by the way, Caraviello, isn't getting into the Hall part of any driver's legacy? Suddenly you guys seem ready to elevate Smoke past guys who have a whole lot more career wins than he does. Not sure I agree with that. Plus I think I've already stated that Carl Edwards is now going to win this 2011 Cup championship.

David Caraviello: I mean, look at what NASCAR was like when Tony won his first championship in 2002. Guys like Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Ward Burton and Sterling Marlin weren't just drivers, they were contenders. It was almost a completely different sport, given what the garage area looked like. And the guy is still just as good now as he was then, against much younger drivers in a much more competitive series, even with the burdens of ownership. How many guys can claim that?

Mark Aumann: Even if Stewart doesn't win the title this year, I don't know that my opinion changes on where he ranks in the NASCAR ziggurat. And I'll bet that's the first time "ziggurat" has appeared in Track Smack.

Joe Menzer: Ziggurat? Now there's a word I will have to look up -- and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

David Caraviello: Not sure how the NASCAR zeitgeist is going to react to that one, Mark.

Joe Menzer: What's up with you two? Are you speaking German now? I'm of German descent and still don't know what in the heck you're saying. Smoke has been driving well for a long time, no doubt. But again, didn't Richard Petty do it, too? And DW? Bobby Allison? It's not like we haven't seen guys be competitive over decades like this before.

David Caraviello: Of course, you both realize now what will happen since we're debating the historical significance of a third title for Stewart. Carl Edwards will make a great champion.

Mark Aumann: So where does Edwards rank in the pantheon of champions?

• If Edwards finishes ahead of Stewart, Edwards win the championship.
• If Stewart wins the race, he wins the championship.
• If Stewart ties Edwards, Stewart wins the championship.
• If Edwards leads a lap, Stewart needs to finish four spots ahead of him if Stewart doesn't lead a lap.
• If Edwards leads the most laps, Stewart needs to finish five spots ahead of him if Stewart doesn't lead a lap.
• If Stewart leads a lap, he needs to finish two spots ahead of Edwards if Edwards doesn't lead a lap.
• If Stewart leads the most laps, he needs to finish one spot ahead of Edwards if Edwards doesn't lead a lap.
• If both Stewart and Edwards lead a lap, Stewart needs to finish three spots ahead of Edwards.
• If both Stewart and Edwards lead the most laps, Stewart needs to finish three spots ahead of Edwards.
• If Stewart leads the most laps and Edwards leads a lap, Stewart needs to finish two spots ahead of Edwards.
• If neither Edwards or Stewart lead a lap, Stewart must finish three spots ahead of Edwards.

David Caraviello: I don't know -- is there a place on your ziggurat for him?

3. With a victory at Phoenix behind him and a move to powerful Hendrick Motorsports ahead of him, has Kasey Kahne set himself up as a potential championship contender for 2012?

Joe Menzer: I think you will see Kahne make a return to the Chase, and after that, who knows? As Stewart proved this year, all you've gotta do is get in first and then if you get hot, you can truly contend. So I guess I'm saying yes.

Mark Aumann: Fancy you ask that because I was thinking about 2012 on the flight home from Phoenix and where would I place guys like Kahne, A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, based on the way they've finished the season. But I don't know. My mind tells me that even though he's bringing Kenny Francis along, there's going to be a bit of an adjustment to begin the season. Will it be enough to keep him out of the Chase? I don't know.

David Caraviello: No question, that's the way it looks right now. Despite a tough situation with his Red Bull team potentially closing down after this season, Kahne is showing results better than he has in a long time. Of course, we've seen other instances -- see Earnhardt Jr., Dale -- where guys getting into what seemed a perfect situation at Hendrick hasn't exactly worked out as planned. But with crew chief Kenny Francis following him, and the roll Kahne is on now, no question the pieces are in place.

Kasey Kahne celebrates his win at Phoenix. (Getty)

Leaving in style

Kasey Kahne ended an 81-race winless streak at Phoenix, holding off Chase contenders Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, who finished 2-3.

Kasey Kahne

2011 Chase results
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Joe Menzer: What Kahne and Kenny Francis have been able to do down the stretch this season in a lame-duck situation at Red Bull Racing is nothing short of remarkable. Those guys and all the behind-the-scenes guys at that shop and on that pit crew could have mailed it in weeks ago and no one would have thought much of it. Instead, they've made a real statement by doing exactly the opposite. Kudos to them.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I've been very impressed at how well that team has run, knowing how iffy their futures are. You could very easily go into shutdown mode, and they haven't. Also, I think having Francis adds a familiarity that we rarely see in a driver move. Usually these guys get to Daytona still trying to figure out what voice is on the radio.

Joe Menzer: In some way, I wonder if what Kahne has gone through over the last few years won't serve him much better in the future. You used to hear that if his car wasn't just right, wasn't perfect, he couldn't muscle a decent day out of it. In other words, he could drive just fine when the car was to his liking, but couldn't take an 18th-place car and finish 10th with it, like Jimmie Johnson can. Now that he's shown such resiliency this year, maybe that'll change. Maybe it already has.

David Caraviello: I will say this -- Kahne needs to emerge as a title contender at Hendrick. For all the talent he obviously has, and all the race wins he's accumulated, he's never really made a dent in the standings. Kahne has made the Chase only twice, and wasn't a contender either time. No question, he's been in some tough organizational situations, first with Evernham/Gillett/Petty and now at Red Bull. Other than his first days with Ray Evernham, he's been hampered somewhat by the organizations around him. Next year, that won't be the case.

Mark Aumann: Perhaps it'll be similar to Brad Keselowski, having Paul Wolfe on the pit box. That team suddenly caught fire midway through the season (not literally, of course). But the pieces are definitely in place at Hendrick. It's just a matter of getting familiar with them and building momentum.

David Caraviello: I'll agree with Mark that we are seeing some flashes from some other guys who could be back up there in 2012. Kahne of course is stealing the spotlight, but Allmendinger has shown more improvement, and even Denny Hamlin has run better in the latter stages of this Chase. And then there's Jeff Burton, who has been much better since Talladega. You wonder if, once again, RCR will be a better organization with three full-time cars than with four.

Joe Menzer: If Kahne can win a race for Red Bull under the current situation, he certainly should be able to win multiple races under a more stable Hendrick roof next year. But then again, nothing is for sure. That's what everyone thought when Dale Jr. went there, too, as Mr. Caraviello already has pointed out. Plus, am I the only one who has noticed that the four Hendrick drivers have combined to win a grand total of five races this year? The two Dodge teams for Penske Racing have won just as many with half as many cars. So I guess we shouldn't say anything is a given.

David Caraviello: To me, though, the guy to watch will be Jimmie Johnson. I can't stop thinking of Dale Jarrett, who had a great run for the better part of a decade, and then was hardly heard from again after it ended. I don't expect JJ to fall off the radar like that, but it's going to be very interesting to see how this team regroups, and how quickly they can get back to that championship level -- if they can at all.

Mark Aumann: The hardest thing for me, when I sit and play the "who's in in 2012?" game: Who made it this season that won't next year? There wasn't anyone whom I consider to have had a fluke season. I guess we'll have to wait for Daytona to know for sure. But let's take a couple of months off after Homestead, please? I need the break, if only to clean out the suitcase. I've been carrying around a ziggurat, a pantheon and a pair of flip-flops ever since Michigan.

David Caraviello: I wondered why TSA was so interested in you at the Phoenix airport. That explains it!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.