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Loyalties could make or break Sprint Cup winner

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – If Tony Stewart wins the 2011 Sprint Cup title by one point over Carl Edwards, he'll have Jeff Burton to thank.

On the final lap of last Sunday's penultimate race in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Edwards was running second, Stewart fourth. Between them was Burton. Though Stewart and Burton aren't teammates, they do share a common bond: Both drive Chevrolets. So when Stewart came up on Burton's bumper, Burton moved over, allowing Stewart to take third without a fight and gain one more point in the standings.

Though it might not sound like much, one point could prove the difference in the championship, and it was gained all because of loyalty.

With the championship race down to two drivers separated by just three points heading into Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, battle lines are being drawn in the South Florida sand. On one side is Team Ford supporting Edwards; on the other is Team Chevy pulling for Stewart.

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It's the kind of allegiance found only in racing.

While the Philadelphia Phillies might have been rooting for their National League brethren St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series, Roy Halladay couldn't suit up to help the Cards. Here, the blue oval and bowtie crews can help Edwards and Stewart, respectively. And while no driver would say there are explicit orders to do so, they're making no secret of their allegiance – especially those in the Chevy camp.

Earlier this week, Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet and a teammate of Burton, said: "If we can help Tony in any way, we will."

When asked to clarify on Friday, Harvick explained it this way: "I think everybody in a Chevrolet would rather see a Chevrolet win, just knowing how much it means to the manufacturer. Obviously, Tony is a good friend of mine, but you can't disrupt the pureness of the sport and the emotions and all the things that go with that. You don't want to be that guy that always shows up on the highlight reel that affected the championship. … So you go about cutting him some slack on restarts, little things like that and on pit road, whatever the case may be."

Allegiances are hardly new to NASCAR, though they do crisscross the garage now more than ever before. Stewart and Jeff Gordon aren't teammates in the traditional sense, but they both drive chassis and use engines built by Hendrick Motorsports. When either goes to victory lane, Rick Hendrick is there to congratulate them. And every Ford in Sunday's race will be powered by a Roush Yates engine.

There are vested interests everywhere inside the garage, so if you can't win, you root for your teammate. If they can't, you pull for an affiliate. And if they can't win, you take up sides with whoever shares the same logo on their front grill.

"Those relationships are very broad," Gordon said. "It's not just something that's come up recently. We do have different alliances these days because of the way the engines are being built and rented out to other teams and chassis and engineering, so that might cross a lot more teams than it used to. I would think that you hope those don't come into effect here on Sunday, but they certainly could."

If the championship does come down to manufacturer allegiances, Edwards could be in trouble. Chevy will outnumber Ford in Sunday's race. But more than that, the bowtie crew appears to be more willing to help their own than the Ford camp is willing to help Edwards.

Matt Kenseth, Edwards' Roush Fenway teammate, said Friday that he would help Edwards after practice, after qualifying, but "when you race on Sunday, it is one against 42."

Actually, it's not. Jimmie Johnson's pulling for Stewart. So is Gordon. And then there's Harvick, who has a contentious history with Edwards. If the situation arises where giving Stewart a spot means the difference between winning and losing the championship, will Harvick pull over and let him go by?

"You watched the race last week," Harvick said. "You saw the end."

That would be a yes.

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