Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stewart vs. Edwards: Showdown at the OK Corral

Smoke says, "After you've won it, second doesn't really matter!"
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Ladies and gentlemen! Your attention, please! In the center ring, a 500-mile exhibition for your entertainment…

Wait…that was last Sunday. Promoter Eddie Gossage’s well-hyped Texas Title Match between Tony “Smoke” Stewart and Carl “Cousin Carl” Edwards went off exactly as planned, with the contenders battling it out one-two for the win in the Texas AAA 500. The fight went the distance with Stewart scoring a TKO and moving to within three points of leader Edwards.

This week, however, it’s on to the Wild West at Phoenix International Raceway. Good thing "Smoke" got a new hat and guns for the showdown since he’s probably put away the ones he got the last time he won at Texas Motor Speedway back in 2006. Cousin Carl’s got a matching set from sweeping the spring and fall races in 2008, so he’s locked, loaded, and ready for a gunfight at the OK Corral.

They’ll each need all the ammunition they can get to hold off the challengers at the Kobalt Tools 500 on Sunday. The Chase contenders have a total of 15 wins at Phoenix, but Stewart and Edwards count for only two of them. The last time "Smoke" won there was 1999, while "Cousin Carl" is the defending race winner.

Kevin "Happy" Harvick, aka "The Finisher," lurks in third place, only 33 points out of first. With two wins at the one-mile oval under his belt, Harvick shouldn't be underestimated. Matt Kenseth, who used his alias "Mr. Consistency" more this year than he has in a while, has one Phoenix win notched on his gun, a championship to go with it and just five points more than Harvick out of first. Either of these drivers could be a threat for the win and to make gains in the Chase if something happens to the top two.

Jimmie "The Driver Formerly Known as Vanilla" Johnson, at 55 points back in the Chase could be a stalking horse if he finds his way to Victory Lane this weekend. That trail shouldn't be too cold for him even with a reconfigured track, considering he's been there four times and has an average finish of 4.8 (hmm...4.8, 48...coincidence?) He's out of contention in the Chase, but he could win the race and perhaps salvage some of his pride.

When the dust settles in the OK Corral, who will be left standing? Really it's anyone's guess since the track was recently reconfigured. According to NASCAR, the frontstretch was widened by 10 feet, the dog-leg curve between Turns 2 and 3 extended 95 feet, while tightening the turn radius from 800 to 500 feet. When Stewart won here, PIR was known as a flat track, but now variable banking has been implemented, ostensibly to "ensure the immediate use of two racing grooves," says NASCAR's Statistical Advance. Whether that's true or not has yet to be seen, and NASCAR's limited testing policy could play as big a role in the outcome of the race, and possibly the Chase, as the drivers themselves do.

All metaphors aside, I was in the Media Center following the thriller in Texas. I watched both drivers carefully during their sessions, and what I saw told me as much as what they said.

Carl Edwards seemed to be as relaxed as a driver could be coming off of a 500-mile race and knowing that the guy behind you in points was, at that very moment, celebrating in Victory Lane.

He laughed off my question about Stewart still being worked up, but when asked about Tony's performance, said "At the end of the day it truly doesn't matter what the 14 team does or what Tony does or what anyone else does. All we can do is just go do the best we can do. It might feel comfortable to them to be the position they're in, to be gaining points. But truly the past is history. We've got to go out and run these next two races."

"Yeah, I don't underestimate them for a second. I know how good they are. "

Edwards allowed that Phoenix will be a wild card, but said, "Tony was out there at that tire test with us. I got to see how good those guys were. I feel like we're going to be pretty good...We really think next week at Phoenix has a larger opportunity by a landslide to change the outcome of this Chase."

Stewart swaggered into the Media Center, joking about how their car was "all right, it was fair" and how they could probably have done a better job. Having just won his second race in a row and his fourth of the Chase, you'd expect him to be downright giddy, but beneath his normal smart-mouthed responses, his level of confidence didn't cross the line into arrogance. He wasn't bragging, he was speaking the truth as he saw it.

When asked about the message his win sent to the No. 99 team, that "maybe what they thought was reality isn't reality," Stewart grinned. "We tried to tell them that last week, so... It is what it is. I mean, I still stand firm that we're not counting on them to make mistakes. We're controlling our destiny...We're worried about what we're doing. We're not worried about what they're doing...That's what we intend to do the next two weeks."

And just in case anyone didn't get the message, Stewart said, "I'm not worried about anybody. I'm worried about what we're doing, and that's it. I mean, make no mistakes, understand this when you leave here, for the next two weeks, I don't care what he does. I didn't care what he did last week. I didn't care what he did this week. I was worried about the 14 car and that's all."

Get it? Got it? Good.

I had a final question for Stewart. His win at Phoenix was back in 1999, and Homestead in 1999 and 2000, so I asked him, "It's been a while since you won at either of those tracks. Do you think you can get back to Victory Lane at either place?"

Smoke smirked and said, "Been a while since I won here, but we're here tonight, aren't we? I don't know how you count us out. Been a long time since we won at Martinsville and here. We've done it two weeks in a row."

"Yeah, if I ever had confidence that we can do it, yeah, I feel that we can"

Maybe Cousin Carl should bring both his sets of six-guns. He may need them.

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