AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ten minutes after the checkered flag flew, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart sat side-by-side, just as they have for most of the past three months. After nine races, 2,907 laps and 3,603 miles, three points separate the two drivers with one race to go.
In staging the most competitive Chase in the playoff's eight-year history, both drivers have been at their absolute best, as it's supposed to be. One week after finishing 1-2 at Texas, they came home 2-3 at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, this time with Edwards getting the best of Stewart and only Kasey Kahne getting the better of them both.
The result sets up what amounts to a winner-take-all showdown in next Sunday's Ford 400 in South Florida. If Edwards beats Stewart, he's the champ; if Stewart finishes just three spots in front of Edwards, Stewart wins. For a sport that struggles to generate on-track drama, this is as good as it gets.
"This is kind of strange to say right now because we are battling and it is a zero-sum game – one of us will win and one of us will lose," Edwards said. "To be racing these guys at their peak, for us I can say completely truthfully this is the best Chase we have ever had. … If they beat us, they are beating us at our best and that is pretty neat."
How close is this championship battle? Nine races in, they've scored the exact same number of points in the Chase, with Edwards holding the lead only because of a three-point bonus he received going in. Edwards could post a 4.9 average in the 10 Chase races (which would be the best average in the history of the playoff) and still lose, while Stewart could win four of 10 races and not emerge with the title.
Going into Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, Edwards speculated that it could be a separation race. A reconfiguration of the track made it the ultimate question mark, with no one truly knowing how good (or bad) they might be. From the drop of the green flag, however, it was clear that wouldn't be the case.
Stewart started eighth, Edwards ninth and the gap pretty much stayed that way for all 312 laps. The early advantage went to Stewart, who didn't care that an overnight rain had wiped all the rubber off the track, making the outside lane nearly undrivable. Not for Stewart, however, who showed off his talent by wheeling his car around Matt Kenseth in a daredevil move that, quite possibly, no other driver could have made, at least not without wrecking.
None of this fazed Edwards, who stayed in Stewart's rearview mirror the entire way, exhibiting a steady calm that showed there is no panic inside him. Just as he said he'd do, Edwards ran his race, which meant picking up spots when they were available, but not pressing to keep up for keep-up's sake. Having learned from watching Denny Hamlin choke away a title a year ago in this race, Edwards was determined not to beat himself.
Eventually, the window opened. On their second-to-last pit stop, Stewart's team made an air-pressure adjustment on his tires that didn't work. When his car slowed, Edwards was there to take the lead, which he held until he came down pit road for his final stop. That handed the lead to Kahne, who'd pitted much earlier. On fresher tires for a longer period, Kahne had picked up enough time that he held a 1.7-second advantage on Edwards after pit stops cycled through.
Kahne winning is hardly a surprise. Over the last nine races, he's scored more points than everyone but Edwards and Stewart.
"I feel each week I'm going to the racetrack with as good a car as anybody out there, which has been really nice this season," said Kahne, who halted an 81-race winless streak with his Phoenix victory. "Yeah, we haven't won in a while. There's been a lot of ups and downs. We were able to finally put a whole race together today, a little luck.
"It's tough to hear you say it's shutting down in eight days," he continued, talking about the impending closure of his current team, Red Bull Racing. "Over the last three months, you have one of the top-five cars in NASCAR shutting down and that's crazy."
Homestead-Miami will mark the end of Red Bull Racing, as well as Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign. The five-time defending champion was officially eliminated from contention Sunday, with only Edwards and Stewart still in the running.
Seven days from now, one of them will be the new Sprint Cup champion.
"To race Carl for the lead in the races, for the points championship, that's going to mean something at the end of the year. That's going to add [meaning] to whoever wins this," Stewart said. "I think it's pretty honorable to be in that situation right now. It's an awesome championship battle. I don't know how you could ask for more than what we got."
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