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:
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."
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.