Now it really is a title fight.
Tony Stewart's post-victory declaration of confidence at Martinsville last week was contorted into a promotional gimmick with a boxing theme by Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage this week, and although the stunt seemed contrived, on Sunday it was validated as the story of the final two races of the Sprint Cup season.
Stewart, who was winless in 26 regular-season races, led 173 of 334 laps and won for the fourth time in eight Chase for the Championship races to pull within three points of leader Carl Edwards, who finished second.
Their proficiency in the Chase for the Championship -- Edwards has an average finish position of 5.6, Stewart 7.4 -- and the shortcomings of Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski on Sunday -- has effectively thinned the herd of realistic Chase for the Championship contenders to just them. Harvick remains third but slipped to 30 points out with a 13th-place finish. Keselowski, who fell from fourth to fifth in points, is now 49 points out.
"It shows what this Chase is going to be about," Stewart said. "It's a good battle right now. If you're Brian France right now, I would say he's giddy. If not, he should be, because this is the perfect scenario. It's the perfect storm, so to speak, going into these last two weeks. That's what you want. This is about as exciting as it gets, to have two guys that are down to three points with two weeks ago."
And now, five things we learned at Texas:
1. Tony Stewart is feeling it: He spent a week insisting he was not trying to call out, wear down or mentally undo Edwards, but he seemed to be devilishly enjoying all of the above on Sunday night. He insisted he needed no Edwards collapse to win a third title, but wryly asserted he had certain inherent advantages over a driver with no Cup titles. He made fun of Edwards for defacing his picture on a poster outside the media room. Stewart said he doesn't need to say another word about his performance and gathering momentum, but grinned, "I'm pretty sure what we did on the racetrack said everything we needed to tell him today. I mean, I don't know how you top that. He knows. Trust me, he knows. If he's out there drawing on me, he knows. The fun thing is I don't feel like I have to say anything. I feel like I already got it done."
2. Carl Edwards ain't scared: If the boxing analogy has to be humored, Edwards has taken two haymakers from Stewart and retains the top ranking. Edwards has won just one race this season, but led the points for 20 of 34 weeks. Stewart has won four times, and led the points just once, after the third race of the season at Las Vegas.
Edwards led the points by 14 (and fourth-place Stewart by 19) three weeks ago, but Stewart jumped to second place and cleaved the margin to eight the next week with a win at Martinsville.
Still a lead, he said.
"I think we're very fortunate to have led the points for as long as we have this season," Edwards said. "I think the guys -- I know myself -- have a certain comfort level with it. We've watched the guys make runs at us and then fall away.
"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."
3. Kyle Busch continues to ruin his career: The ultra-talented 26-year-old found yet another way to detract from what has been a Sprint Cup career of both greatness and unfulfilled promise. His antics this season had already distracted enough from his performance, on and away from speedways. There was a highly publicized speeding ticket in North Carolina and incidents with Kevin Harvick in a Cup race and Elliott Sadler in trucks, and Busch was parked for the Nationwide and Cup races after intentionally escorting championship contender Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall under caution during the truck race on Friday. He issued a stilted apology, but his attempts at pacifying the outcry against him will likely fail because his history of boorish behavior, and the perception that he has through an eight-year career in the top three NASCAR series, squandered opportunities despite support from several moneyed sponsors and three of the sport's most successful teams: Roush Fenway, Hendrick Motorsports and now Joe Gibbs Racing.
Though Busch has won 30 truck races, 51 in Nationwide and 23 in Sprint Cup, he may not actually be worth the grief. Team owner Joe Gibbs spent the morning on Saturday apologizing to sponsors, series officials and anyone else needing placating although Busch hammered Hornaday Jr. driving for his own truck series team. Gibbs, who has mitigated the bad behavior of employees throughout his NASCAR and NFL career as a three-time Super Bowl-winning coach -- from Dexter Manley to Stewart -- looked weary in taking responsibility for Busch's action during a press conference at Texas Motor Speedway.
Harangued for his indiscretions but willing to be portrayed as a villain in a sport thirsting for such personalities, Busch finds himself with no willing public supporters besides JGR. TMS president Eddie Gossage, an unapologetic exploiter of events and storylines, said he supported NASCAR's decision and hoped it provided a "Jimmy Spencer" moment, referring to the veteran's notorious, tooth-chipping punch of Busch's older brother, Kurt, after an on-track incident at Michigan in 2003. Gossage said he would have sent Kyle Busch a bill for repairs to the wall, if needed. It will be interesting to see how long JGR is willing to play the role of apologist/enabler, or if it will, as former Roush president Geoff Smith said after firing Busch's older brother, Kurt, in 2005, "We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists, effective today." That will likely depend greatly on sponsors, which to this point have reserved public comment. And it will likely also depend on the trade-off between irritation and the success the 2009 Nationwide Series champion can bring the team. Already on his way to another Chase fade before being parked -- he entered Sunday seventh in points, 57 off the lead with three races left -- Busch has never finished higher than fifth in Sprint Cup points in five Cup playoffs, seemingly making the trade-off not a very good one for JGR. Manley and Stewart won their boss championships. Busch is yet to balance the scale.
4. Michael McDowell had a rough day: The 26-year-old's journeyman's most noteworthy Texas Motor Speedway experience had been a fiery qualifying crash in 2008, when his No. 00 Toyota pummeled the wall and shredded while tumbling down the banking. On Sunday, his downfall was much more gradual. Starting from the back as driver of Busch's No. 18 Toyota, McDowell finished three laps down, in 33rd place. And then he missed he flight to Phoenix, tweeting he was stuck at Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport.
5. Kasey Kahne is ready for next season: Stationed for one stop-gap season at Red Bull Racing until joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, Kahne is finishing with a flourish, as is a race team that is expected to shut down with the sponsor/owner having announced it is leaving the series. With a third-place finish on Sunday, Kahne has four top-5s and a sixth-place finish in the last six races. "They've been doing it throughout the Chase," said Kahne, who is 14th in points. "I wish we were in the Chase. This has been the best part of our season."