Edwards v. Stewart: The Dream Realized

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s all come down to this. No more boxing references, no more shootouts…just one last race to decide the Sprint Cup Champion. The ten-race Chase culminates this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Only two competitors remain eligible for the Sprint Cup and neither of them is Jimmie Johnson. Whole legions of recent NASCAR converts don’t know what it’s like to see a champion wearing anything but the No. 48 emblazoned on his firesuit. Now they’ll get that chance.

If Brian France and the other NASCAR Powers-That-Be had ordered a final two from central casting, they might have gotten such perfect archetypes, but it’s doubtful. From their personalities and personal habits to their qualifications for the Chase to their manufacturer and team affiliations, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart may be evenly matched, but they’re the Oscar Madison and Felix Unger of NASCAR’s top tier.

In the points lead by the slimmest of margins is Carl “Cousin Carl” Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Aflac/Scotts Ford. Legendary owner Jack Roush fields three other teams with 24 years of Cup ownership, 125 Cup wins, and two Cup driver championships to his credit.

Snarling at Edwards’ heels, trailing by only three points, Tony “Smoke” Stewart (who did not, as you might think, get that nickname from smoking the competition, but from smoking right-rear tires in USAC and engines in the IRL), pilot of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Motorsports Office Depot/Mobil One Chevrolet hopes to become the first owner/driver to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Stewart-Haas Motorsports has only one other team and is in their sixth season with 12 total wins, 10 of which are by Stewart himself.

Edwards rolled into the Chase on the strength of his consistent performance. Though he won just once, he’s amassed 18 top-fives and 25 top-tens in 35 races for an average finish of 9.5 so far this season. In the nine races of the Chase, he has six top-fives and eight top-10s for an average finish of 5.22. Edwards led 24 races for a total of 784 laps. Time after time he chose to race for points over wins despite the new system supposedly weighted toward winning. Obviously it worked. Edwards’ average Chase finish is 5.22.

Stewart tiptoed into championship contention and said himself he didn’t feel like his team belonged in the Chase. He’s got just eight top fives and 18 top tens…but four of those top-five finishes are wins in the Chase, bumping his season average finish to 12.3 and his Chase average finish to 6.9. He led 20 races for 848 laps.

On a personal level, the differences are just as marked.“Cousin Carl” charms the media—reportedly he’ll even be in the NNS booth next season—where “Smoke” growls at reporters—or worse. Stewart’s idea of lifting weights is putting on his helmet; Edwards’s athleticism landed him on magazine covers. Edwards, married with children…Stewart, single with pets.

While both grew up racing on short tracks throughout the Midwest, their professional paths were completely different. Edwards, from Columbia, MO, was 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year, 2005 NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year, 2007 NASCAR Busch Series Champion and winner of  the 2011 Sprint All-Star Race. He’s won 19 of 264 Cup races, 37 Nationwide races and 6 Truck Series races.

Stewart, born in Columbus, Indiana, was 1991 USAC Rookie of the Year, 1995 USAC Triple Crown Champion, 1996 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, 1997 IRL Champ, 1999 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, 2002 and 2005 Sprint Cup Series Champion, 2006 IROC Champion and the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race 2009 winner. He’s won 43 of 463 Cup starts, has 10 Nationwide wins, and 2 Truck Series wins.

If Edwards wins, he’ll join Bobby Labonte in having won both the Nationwide (Busch) title and the Sprint (Winston) Cup. If Stewart wins he’ll join the elite group of drivers including Yarborough, Pearson, Waltrip and Lee Petty holding three titles, and he is the only driver to win championships under both pre-Chase and Chase formats thus far.

So who has the edge at Homestead? On paper, it’s Edwards by a nose, if only because he’s had fewer races so his percentages are higher. They each have two wins, Edwards has four top fives, Stewart has three. Both have six top tens, but Edwards has an average finish of 5.7 in seven races, Stewart 12.4 in 12 races.

But this is no ordinary race, and these are no ordinary competitors. Look closely at Edwards’ smile. Those are barracuda teeth. Smoke doesn’t even bother to camouflage the predatory intensity in his eyes. He flat-out said he only cares about earning four more points than Edwards. They’re having fun, but make no mistake, these two couldn’t be more serious about winning, so the past is simply…prelude.

In their post-race interviews at Phoenix the contenders were asked about the side-by-side battle for the championship.

Stewart said, “We saw what happened at Texas in Hornaday's championship run. We saw what happened with Elliott Sadler's championship run. I want to beat a guy because you did a better job, not because a circumstance happens that takes somebody out of it. To race Carl for the lead in the races, for the points championship, that's going to mean something at the end of the year. That's going to add to whoever wins this."

"We both had to fight and fight and fight to get every point we can get up to this point. I think it makes it more gratifying, the results, at the end of the day. I feel like I'm working towards something and I feel like if we accomplish this, we have worked for it, not had it handed to us, not had it given to us. That's all you can ask for as a driver, is to be in that position. I think it's pretty honorable to be in that situation right now. It's an awesome championship battle. So I don't know how you could ask for more than what we got."

Edwards’ take: “We're battling. A zero-sum game, one of us going to win, one of us is going to lose. It's neat to me that Tony and the guys on the 14 are running so well, won so many races, performing on a high level. It's going to mean more if we're able to beat them in this championship because of that, to beat Tony and those guys at their peak. I know for us I can say completely truthfully this is the best Chase we've ever had. We haven't gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we've performed better than we ever have."

"If they're beating us, they're beating us at our best, and I think that's pretty neat.”
Edwards v. Stewart: The Dream Realized Edwards v. Stewart: The Dream Realized Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 Rating: 5