Back Seat Driver: All bets are off

Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
Call me chicken, but I can't officially pick a Chase winner.

Oh, I know who I want to win. I'm a Smoke convert from way back. When he first came to NASCAR from the IRL I couldn't stand him because of his arrogance. He scraped out an open-wheel championship and acted like he was the second coming of A.J. Foyt.

He wasn't particularly good in the lower-horsepower Busch (Nationwide) cars, but that didn't keep him from being cocky. When he moved up to Cup cars, though, he found his groove and won a championship for real, proving to me that he really can drive. Here he is, another championship and a bunch of wins later, showing that he kind of is the second coming of A.J. Foyt, even without the Borg-Warner Trophy on his shelf.

"Smoke" has proven he can win in just about any vehicle on any surface. He's arguably the most versatile driver in motorsports today. Just ask him. He'll tell you. But to quote Tony: "It's like Kid Rock said: It's not cocky if you back it up. I think we've been backing it up the last three weeks. It's what our intention is."

I want Tony Stewart to win that third championship, this time for his own team. And for the No. 14.

Foyt's number.

Yet this year's Chase is different to me, and it's just not because Jimmie Johnson is out of contention. This season I had the incredible opportunity to look both contenders in the eye from only a few feet away. I got to ask them both questions, feel the energy pumping off of them after they'd just finished 1-2 at Texas Motor Speedway. So when I see them now, hear them speak, I have a different perspective.

Carl Edwards may seem to many to be the Eddie Haskell of NASCAR. He deals with the media so smoothly. Too smoothly for some tastes. But looking into Carl's eyes, I didn't see a carefully-polished media-savvy product. I saw a controlled, disciplined athlete who is determined not to let his challenger's Muhammad Ali imitation get in his head and deter him from focusing on the championship he's worked all season to win.

Maybe his "Cousin Carl" persona is crafted for easy sponsor/fan consumption, but scratch that veneer and you've got the driver who sent Brad Keselowski airborne. His comment afterward? Just that he hadn't anticipated that result. Don't ever mistake his intensity.

Most telling have been his comments about watching Stewart. "It is interesting to me. I've learned a lot about Tony, the way he competes by what he's said. I've paid attention to what he says. I pay attention to the way he looks when he gets out of the racecar, the body language he uses, things like that. I've learned a lot. I don't think he's going to be any weaker of a competitor because of the things I've seen. I think he's as good as they get and I'm going to have to go out there and do the best I can to be good enough to beat him."

His best has been pretty dang good. The man is a well-tuned machine, driving a well-tuned machine and supported by a team that's also well-tuned.

Edwards has the statistical edge at Homestead-Miami Speedway. I'm sure you've seen the numbers. Edwards has the consistent finishes throughout the season that make him a good bet to finish well, if not win the race. All he has to do is finish in front of Stewart and the Sprint Cup is his. So I have a hard time betting against him.

But "Smoke" doesn't care about those numbers. He's won four races in the Chase to get to where he is right now. As Tony said, he'd wreck his mom to win a championship. He'd wreck your mom to win a championship. He knows how it feels to hoist that championship trophy. If I were ever going to use the cliched phrase "eye of the tiger," I'd use it about Stewart. I can't bet against him.

Both are focused. Both are skilled. Both have the will to win.

It's just too close for me to call.
Back Seat Driver: All bets are off Back Seat Driver: All bets are off Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Saturday, November 19, 2011 Rating: 5