The heat is now on … Carl Edwards.
The points leader dodged a scud missile when he left Martinsville Speedway with an uncanny 9th-place finish Sunday. For that, he can breathe a little easier knowing he survived his worst track in the Chase. But he can't feel comfortable with Tony Stewart hot on his tail.
NASCAR's most ornery driver is on the hunt and he's making no bones about who his prey is. It's Edwards, whose lead is down to just eight points after Stewart pulled off an improbable victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, vaulting him from fourth to second in the standings.
"He better be worried, that's all I've got to say," Stewart declared after climbing out of his car in victory lane. "He's not going to have an easy three weeks."
If Edwards thought he was going to face a friendly, intra-team scrimmage for the 2011 championship, well, that's not happening. Five hundred laps of short-track racing took care of that.
Sunday's race at Martinsville was, in a word, chaotic. To recount who had run-ins with whom would require upping our bandwidth 10-fold. Since we can't do that, I'll summarize what went down this way: a demolition derby would have been jealous of Sunday's race, which had almost as many leaders (12) as it did cautions (18).
First it was Jeff Gordon's race to lose, then Kyle Busch's, then Jimmie Johnson's. You'll note the absence of Stewart, who ran in the 20s for much of the day. Joining him mid-pack was Edwards, who's never been very good at Martinsville and, knowing so, came in with a just-survive attitude.
While they raced just to stay on the lead lap, Busch and Johnson were battling to get back into the championship hunt. And for much of the race, it looked like they would, at least Busch anyway. He led the most laps (126) and at one point during the race was just 18 points back of Matt Kenseth, who'd assumed the in-race points lead as his teammate, Edwards, struggled.
For 463 of 500 laps, the big winner on the day looked to be Kenseth. Not only was he surviving one of his worst tracks but he was thriving, running in the top 10 the entire day. But then he and Busch made contact, cutting a tire on Kenseth's No. 17. Moments later, Kenseth lost control of his car, collecting a handful of others, including Busch, wrecking both their title hopes.
"Obviously I didn't make good decisions and we ended up in a bad spot," Kenseth said. "I wish I could do some things over and try again, but we can't do that. We raced hard all day. I thought we had pretty good track position at times and just couldn't capitalize on it."
With Kenseth out of the picture, Johnson had a glimmer of hope. Trailing by 50 points coming in, the five-time defending champ needed both Edwards and Kenseth to run into trouble if he was to have a chance at extending his unprecedented run, and it was happening. That is, until Edwards gradually started creeping up the leaderboard. At one point he was a lap down and even had a penalty levied against him for jumping a restart. NASCAR later rescinded that penalty, saving Edwards from falling into an insurmountable hole.
Given new life, Edwards pulled off a potentially championship-saving rally.
"I had become okay with the fact that we were probably gonna finish 20th or 25th," Edwards said. "I was thinking already about [next weekend's race at] Texas and how we were gonna have to go there and everything we were gonna do. But my guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate. I'm just glad we can move on."
But not without some new company.
Stewart has been left for dead several times this season. First, when he didn't win a race during the regular season and characterized his spot in the Chase as nothing more than taking up room, then when he seemingly spoiled his hot start to the Chase (when he won the first two races) by going 25th-15th in the next two races to drop all the way to seventh in the standings.
It didn't look like he'd make up any ground Sunday, especially with under 100 laps to go when he gave up the lead with an apparent flat tire. It wasn't flat, but still Stewart went to pit road, dropping him all the way back to 23rd.
Over the next 80 laps he drove his way back toward the front and found himself in second with less than 10 to go. That' where he would finish, or so it seemed because no one was catching Johnson. Then Brian Vickers decided to exact some revenge on Kenseth for an earlier incident. That brought out a caution with eight laps to go and, more importantly for Stewart, erased his deficit behind Johnson.
"You can thank Vickers for that, being a jackass," Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus lamented over the team radio.
On the ensuing restart, Stewart started on the outside of Johnson. The two raced side-by-side during the first of a three-lap shootout, with Stewart nosing ahead of Johnson and eventually into the lead.
"When I was inside of Tony, I went down in the corner and thought that eight tires would be a lot better than four," Johnson said, indicating that he thought about barreling through the corner and using Stewart's car as a retaining wall. "I changed my mind. With where he is in the points, what's going on, the fact we raced throughout the day today, he never touched me, I had a hard time doing that."
Now it's on to Texas, where Edwards finished third and Stewart 12th earlier this season. And though the Chase is more than just a two-man race – Kevin Harvick (4th on Sunday) is just 21 points back, Brad Keselowski 27 – Stewart is only focused on the man in front of him.
"It's no disrespect to [Edwards]," Stewart said. "He's a great competitor, he's a great guy, he's with a great organization that deserves their shot at that championship, too. We've had one of those up and down years and we're having a run in this Chase now where we're hungry. We're hungry for this. I feel like our mindset into these next three weeks, we've been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks. We're cashing tickets in these next three weeks."
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