With three races left to run in the 2011 NASCAR season, Carl Edwards still sits in first and Tony Stewart is eight points behind. No one else is within 20 points, and while we're not yet ready to declare these two the only viable challengers for the Sprint Cup, it's getting awfully close.
They've reached this point by two very different ways: Stewart by winning three races, Edwards by being eerily consistent in every race. And now we get to see which approach will pay off.
You know about Stewart's astonishing run in the Chase: three victories in seven outings. It's a performance that's stunning not only because he's peaked so high at the right time, but also because even with those three wins, he's still losing in the standings to a guy who hasn't even won one Chase race.
If Edwards wins this year, you'll have to point to Dover, Kansas and Martinsville as the reasons why. He didn't win any of them, but he didn't lose any of them either. In Dover, it was a pit-road penalty. In Kansas, it was a poor setup. And in Martinsville, it was a longstanding problem with the track. In all three cases, Edwards dropped deep into the field. And in all three cases, Edwards rallied to post a top-1o finish.
Since the second Michigan race in August, a span of 10 races, Edwards has finished outside the top 10 just once: last week at Talladega, where he finished 11th. That kind of consistency is exactly what has kept the Cup within arm's reach all season long.
[Related: Chase race tightens after Stewart's win]
Martinsville could be Edwards' greatest rebounding success. This track doesn't fit his eye; he's never won at Martinsville, and outside of a third-place finish in 2008, he's never finished higher than 8th. And on Sunday, he fell a lap down twice. But luckily-timed cautions brought him back onto the lead lap, and savvy racing through the field avoided the trouble that befell three of his biggest challengers in Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.
"We were so bad," he said. "Probably 200 laps to go, I was thinking, 'Okay, the Cardinals didn't give up the other night. That's a little motivation. Missouri Tigers didn't give up the other night. That's motivation.' I became all right with the fact we were going to finish 20th or 25th. I was already thinking about Texas, everything we were going to do. My guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate."
And as we turn our eyes to Texas, this sets up an interesting dynamic, one that'll have fans tied in knots. On one hand, you've got a driver who's been consistent the entire season, and would be in the hunt for the Cup even without the Chase. On the other hand, you've got a driver who's only in the championship mix because of the Chase and its points reset. Critics of the Chase say it doesn't reward season-long consistency, and yet the most consistent driver all season could win the Cup without winning a Chase race. And the guy who could win the race with a late surge is the guy most like the old-school rope-belt-and-grit-in-the-face drivers. Kind of a conundrum for NASCAR fans, isn't it?
Regardless of who wins, we're in for one hell of a stretch run here. Edwards. Stewart. Who do ya got?