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Edwards, Stewart look to gain edge in Chase

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

AVONDALE, Ariz. – For the first time since 2006, there will be a Sprint Cup champion not named Jimmie Johnson. Barring a complete meltdown, the 2011 champ will either be Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart.

Who has the upper hand depends on whom you ask. Johnson says it's Stewart, who heads into the penultimate race in the Chase riding a two-race winning streak and having won four of the last eight. Denny Hamlin, last year's runner-up, gives the edge to Edwards, citing his three-point advantage in the standings and the fact that he's been solid all season long as opposed to Stewart, who's only gotten hot lately.

"Tony is obviously very hot right now, but that's not going to keep going on forever," Hamlin explained. "I think when Carl feels some pressure, he's going to have to perform a little better and I think he has the ability to do that. I think their cars are fast enough to do that."

The conventional thought is that Edwards is more vulnerable to the potential pressure than Stewart, and there is some credence to it. Edwards is racing for his first championship, Stewart his third. And in spite of Hamlin's prediction, there's no ignoring what Stewart's done in the Chase. Yes, the wins came out of nowhere, but one win can be chalked up to a fluke. Four is a trend.

And yet Stewart still trails by three points.

Edwards may not have won last weekend at Texas, but when Stewart took the checkered flag and looked in his rearview mirror, he saw the No. 99 right behind him in second. That, Edwards said Friday, has to be weighing on Stewart's mind.

"I know what that feels like to win and have the guy you are chasing in points finish second," Edwards explained Friday. "Jimmie Johnson did that to me in 2008 at Atlanta. Tony, he has to feel the same way and realize that we are going to be tough."

It's a message Stewart will have in plain sight, and vice versa, in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, the penultimate race in the Chase. Stewart qualified eighth, Edwards ninth – just four-hundredths of a second separating the two.

What's yet to be determined is how the changes to Phoenix International Raceway will impact the race. Since the Cup Series last visited the 1-mile track on the outskirts of Phoenix back in February, PIR has undergone a major facelift. The surface has been repaved, variable banking has been added in the corners and the dogleg coming out of Turn 2 has been kicked out, creating a more sweeping turn than before.

The address is the same, but the track is completely different, making this the ultimate wild card in the Chase.

"It feels like a brand-new race track," Edwards said.

"I still think there is a huge opportunity for this to be a very difficult race because passing might be extremely hard," he continued. "If you don't have the right strategy or have trouble on pit road or make a mistake and fall back in the pack, it will be really tough to recover."

Edwards meant this one race, but he might as well have been referring to the championship as a whole. Considering how well both drivers have run on the 1.5-mile tracks, the chance of separation between the two is much greater at Phoenix than in next weekend's finale at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.

When asked who's in control right now, Stewart didn't hesitate.

"I feel like we are to be honest," he said. "I think we showed that last week. 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."

Countered Edwards: "If we run the way that we plan on running here for the next two weeks, I believe that if they want to beat us they are going to have to win a race or two. They are going to have to step it up like they have been."