Hot/Not: Edwards, Stewart tangled in second-closest title race in 30 years

Geoffrey Miller
November 15, 2011

Ice skating race cars? Judging driver reaction, that was the case on the repaved, reconfigured Phoenix over the weekend. Join us as we break down one title fight that stayed tight while another that loosened dramatically.

HOT: This week, NASCAR's championship week, is a great one for superlatives. The NASCAR title fight between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards truly "comes down to one race" and is the closest, tightest scramble for the championship trophy that the sport has seen in 20 years.

The final race really is NASCAR's very own "Game 7 moment" — or just how NASCAR chairman Brian France wanted it when he announced the restructuring of the points system last January.

In fact, scoping 30 years back in NASCAR's history, just one fight to the finale was closer with one race left. That year was 1990 and it saw Dale Earnhardt lead Mark Martin by a mere six points heading to the season finale.

Earnhardt survived, winning his fourth of seven NASCAR Cup championships.

A mere three points (roughly 10-13 under the old points system) separate Edwards and Stewart with just 400 miles remaining Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In 1990, Martin's six-point deficit was just 4.2 percent of the maximum amount of points available, while Stewart stares at a deficit of 6.4 percent. Position-wise, Martin could have beat Earnhardt in 1990 by finishing two spots ahead (not taking into consideration bonus points for laps led). Sunday, Stewart needs to either win or finish at least three positions ahead of Edwards to take the championship.

The first part of Stewart's requirements to take the title is probably what has France smiling the most. For the first time in that 30-year span, the championship will be guaranteed for Stewart or Edwards should either win. It won't matter what their competitor did on-track.

Even in 1990, Martin could have won the season finale and lost the championship had Earnhardt led a lap and finished second. The fact that a race win could determine the title is almost humorous, really, after Stewart's four Chase wins without leading the point standings left many — including us — complaining that something was slightly amiss in the points structure.

This year's Chase for the Sprint Cup also goes down as the tightest since the introduction of the Chase format in 2004. Last year's championship fight held that crown when Jimmie Johnson came to Homestead trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points, or 9.3 percent of the maximum available points. {ysp:more}

Johnson, of course, overcame and won his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Is that the same course Tony Stewart will take Sunday? We'll find out when you do.

Ex-open wheelers ruled this weekend in Phoenix, and Danica was there, too! The highs and lows from the Valley of the Sun:

HOT: Phoenix International Raceway opened in the 1960s with the intent of being a hub of West Coast open-wheel racing, and later CART and IndyCar made it a pivotal stop on their calendars before those days sailed.

Taking that in to account, it almost seemed fitting to see two former open-wheel drivers, Kasey Kahne (2000 USAC National Midget Series champion) and Sam Hornish Jr. (2006 Indianapolis 500 winner) take checkered flags this weekend.

HOT: Though many drivers complained and at least one called it unsafe, the overall scope of improvements to the layout of PIR was a big success. Suddenly, the track seems faster and will eventually permit great side-by-side racing.

And the backstretch dogleg is a real treat to watch on TV and provides the track with some great individual character.

NOT: How, in the massive PIR renovation, did someone not think to surround the entire track with SAFER barriers? That issue should be addressed — especially near the dogleg. It's far too easy for a car to get hooked into those concrete walls.

NEUTRAL: Jason Leffler made a mistake during the final laps of Saturday's race and the result was Elliott Sadler being eliminated from title contention. However, the blame for the incident shouldn't juse be on his shoulders.

Leffler (who admittedly has quite a history of rough driving) contributed to that crash as much as Sadler did with his wild swing to the backstretch apron. It was a racing incident, pure and simple.

NOT: Does anyone blame Denny Hamlin for demanding a switch away from Joe Gibbs Racing Engines? Kyle Busch blew two motors this weekend at Phoenix — an utterly unacceptable issue for any team that wants to battle for a championship.

HOT: Jeff Burton now has four top 10s this season after a fourth-place finish Sunday. Three of those have come in the last four races.

HOT: Another weekend, and another set of good runs for Richard Petty Motorsports. AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose were sixth and eighth Sunday at Phoenix. If you're looking for some dark horse winners in 2012, look no further.

NOT: Hendrick Motorsports may have had their most atrocious weekend of the 2011 season at Phoenix. Jimmie Johnson, eliminated from winning his sixth title, led the team with a 14th-place run. Otherwise, it was Mark Martin (16th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24th) and Jeff Gordon (32nd). What has happened to that group?

FINAL: Don't take the final throes of this season lightly. Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are putting on a title fight that is truly for the ages, and that was nowhere more evident than when they were running nose-to-tail for so long Sunday at Phoenix.

Crowning a title in the final race is something we've grown used to in the Chase, but Sunday's race figures to be on a completely different level. Enjoy it.