Tony Stewart has put enormous pressure on Carl Edwards with his back-to-back Chase wins. Stewart, who has hit Victory Lane in four of the eight Chase races, is also a two-time champion, while Edwards is trying to win his first. They are factors that indicate Stewart's muscle in the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet and mental strength give him the advantage.
Don't count on it. Edwards didn't exactly melt at Texas, rallying to take second. It was his best Chase finish and he needed it. Stewart's run in the Chase has been extraordinary, considering he didn't have a victory in the regular season, but he hasn't been able to dislodge Edwards from the points lead. It's a significant statistic. Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne have been resilient, finding ways to score more points than their Roush Fenway Racing Ford has deserved in the playoffs. It is indicative of their toughness and determination to win the championship.
Edwards has held the points lead following 23 of 34 races this season, including the last five. In the Chase he's had five top-fives, seven top-10s and his worst finish has been 11th. The No. 99 is performing at the same high level it did all year. Edwards has only one win, but his 17 top-fives and 24 top-10s in 2011 lead the series.
"I'm proud of our car for turning around what looked like it was gonna be a bad night overall or a disaster really in the points to something that is real manageable and something we can move forward with," Edwards said in the post-race media conference at Texas. "Obviously, we wanted to beat Tony tonight and pad that lead a little bit, but at the end of the day, we can walk out of here with our heads up. We're still the points leader.
"I think we're very fortunate to have led the points for as long as we have this season. I think the guys ... have a certain comfort level with it. We've watched guys make runs at us and fall away and make runs and fall away. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what the No. 14 team [Stewart] does or what Tony does, all we can do is just go do the best we can do. It might feel comfortable to them [Stewart] to be in 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 and, yeah, I don't underestimate them for a second. I know how good they are, but we're gonna be good as well."
Edwards has never led the points this late in his seven full seasons. He led the Chase early in 2008, dropped to fourth and jumped back up to second and that's where he finished. In 2005, his first full season, Edwards was third and never led in the Chase.
Edwards is a vastly more experienced and mature driver than he was in 2008, and he's been paired with Osborne for all but one season in his Cup career. He was the top free agent before re-signing with Roush Fenway in August, turning down a serious offer from Joe Gibbs Racing that was supported by Toyota, because he's a driver expected to win championships in the coming years.
The 32-year-old from Columbia, Mo., is in a match race with 41 other drivers on the track for the title. He doesn't sound intimidated.
"I feel like we only have to worry about one other guy," Edwards said. "I've raced Tony long enough. I feel comfortable with him. He's not gonna surprise me with anything and I'm grateful for all that experience. I hope I can turn that into a championship."
Edwards was asked if he'd engage Stewart verbally in the upcoming events.
"I don't plan on it," he responded. "I go out and compete as hard as I can. It is fun to joke around a little bit, but at the end of the day, any extra energy I spend thinking about other stuff or worrying about other things is not spent in the right place. I'm focusing on what I'm doing and it would be really fun to be standing up there, the last one on stage at the banquet. I might have a couple of jokes then.
"That would be a good time for them, but I learned early in life that you've got to be careful throwing the jabs out there because somebody might get you."
Osborne keeps Edwards cool on the radio.
"He's been a really good leader throughout the whole thing," Edwards explained. "He's not letting me lose my head."
The oddsmakers have made Edwards and Stewart co-favorites with two Chase races to go. There could be separation between them this weekend at Phoenix, but it's more likely they'll be in a tight race for the championship at Homestead.
"I think folks ought to stay tuned," Edwards said. "It's gonna get pretty exciting."