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Two-man sprint for Chase title will begin at Texas Motor Speedway

In the world of NASCAR, it constituted trash talk. "Carl Edwards better not sleep too long the next three weeks," Tony Stewart said last Sunday at Martinsville, an hour after celebrating in Victory Lane. "We've had one of those up-and-down years. I feel like our mindset these next three weeks is we've been nice all year to a lot of guys and given guys a lot of breaks. We're cashing tickets in these next three weeks."

Stewart has reason to be confident. After failing to take a single checkered flag in the regular season -- and just as recently as August he was saying his team didn't "deserve" to be in the Chase -- Stewart has won three of the seven playoff races. He now trails Edwards by only eight points with three races to go, setting up one of the most intriguing playoff battles of the Chase era, which dawned in 2004.

Stewart and Edwards are two of the most popular drivers in the series. While much ink in the motor sports media has already been spilled about how different they are -- Stewart being the temperamental, intense one; Edwards being the smiling, boy-next-door one -- they are also similar in many ways. Both are sons of the Midwest (Stewart grew up in Indiana; Edwards in Missouri) and both excel at driving extremely loose race cars. Though this doesn't fit the narrative of a white-hot rivalry, they are also good friends and can often be seen chatting and smiling together in the garage and on pit road.

What I find most compelling about the Edwards-Stewart matchup is that it will pit two of the sports' top teams against each other over these next three weeks. Edwards drives for Roush-Fenway Racing, a Ford-backed operation that has seemingly had a car capable of winning every Sunday this season. Stewart drives for Stewart-Haas Racing (which he co-owns), but Stewart's engines and chassis are supplied by Hendrick Motorsports, which has won the last five championships with Jimmie Johnson. Stewart frequently conferences with the other Hendrick drivers in the garage, seeking counsel on setups and preferred lines around the track, so expect him to lean heavily on the likes of Hendrick's Johnson and Jeff Gordon over the next three weeks.

There are other drivers still alive in the title hunt -- Kevin Harvick is 21 points back and Brad Keselowski is 27 -- but it's increasingly looking like this will be a two-man sprint to the title. Stewart and Edwards will be among the five drivers I'll be paying close attention to when the green flag waves on Sunday afternoon at Texas in Chase Race No. 8.

1. Carl Edwards

To hear Edwards tell it, he was simply hoping to survive the first seven races of the Chase -- none of his best tracks fell on the schedule during that stretch -- then really turn it on starting at Texas. Well, mission accomplished for Edwards. Week in and week out, Edwards hasn't had the fastest car, but his worst finish has only been 11th (at Talladega). So far, his relentless consistency has trumped Stewart's flashes of raw speed.

Edwards should be formidable at Texas, one of his favorite tracks on the circuit. Though he's crashed in two of his last four starts in the Lone Star State, Edwards has three career victories on the 1.5-mile track and finished third here in the spring. During his teleconference with reporters this week he sounded very, very confident about his chances on Sunday. And I suspect we'll see a different Edwards once the race goes green -- daring, bold and, late in the afternoon, in the lead. He's my pick to take the checkers.

2. Tony Stewart

If Stewart hadn't finished 25th at Dover and 15th at Kansas earlier in the Chase, he'd have a commanding points lead right now. But Stewart clearly relishes his role as the stalker. And what, you ask, did he mean when he said at Martinsville last Sunday that he'd be "cashing tickets in these next three weeks"? Well, Stewart was sending a message to other drivers to give him ground for the rest of the Chase, because he's obviously planning on being ultra-aggressive over these next three races.

Stewart hasn't finished in the top 10 at Texas in his last three starts. But he has shown speed here, leading laps in two of the last three races. Stewart has always been a clutch driver, delivering when it matters most, so I expect him to rip off a solid top-five run on Sunday to stay close to Edwards in the standings.

3. Kevin Harvick

What will haunt Harvick this offseason? Getting caught up in a wreck at Talladega, which caused him to finish 32nd. Those types of results are tough to overcome in the Chase.

Harvick has never won at Texas, but in 17 career starts there his average finish is an impressive 12.9. He needs to hope that both Stewart and Edwards wreck -- and Texas has long been a breeding ground for crashes because of the high speeds the track produces -- and then author a top-five finish himself.

4. Brad Keselowski

Last week it looked like Keselowski was going to make a major move in the standings, but he spun late and finished 17th. Still, Keselowski, who was the last man to qualify for the playoffs, must be considered the breakout driver of the Chase.

Texas has been one of Keselowski's worst tracks on the Cup circuit. In six career starts he's never finished higher than 18th and his average finish is 23.7. Anything inside the top 10 on Sunday would be considered a victory for Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge team.

5. Matt Kenseth

Like Keselowski, Kenseth appeared to be on his way to a great points day at Martinsville until he crashed late and wound up 31st. He now trails Edwards by 36 points.

Kenseth is the defending race winner at Texas and he's finished in the top three here an impressive eight times in his career. He and his Roush Fenway teammate Edwards will work diligently together on their setups on Friday and Saturday, and both should be blazing fast on Sunday. It says here that the Roush boys wind up one-two when the checkered flag flies.

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