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Stewart's improbable comeback is latest chapter in year of comebacks


FORT WORTH, Texas -- In a year highlighted by remarkable championship comebacks across sports, NASCAR's title Chase could add to the unpredictability.

Or is this fairy tale about to end?

Tony Stewart, discounted by many as a title contender after he went winless in the season's first 26 races, has won four of the last eight events to pull within three points of Carl Edwards. Stewart's charge is a surprise even to him. He declared before the opening Chase race in September that he didn't think he was a true championship threat.

Yet, Stewart seems destined for his third Cup title -- which would end Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign -- based on what has happened in sports this year. Consider:

• The Connecticut men's basketball team, which finished ninth in the Big East, won its final 11 games en route to the national title.

• The Green Bay Packers became the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl.

• The St. Louis Cardinals, who made the playoffs on the final day of Major League Baseball's regular season, went on to win the World Series in dramatic fashion.

If Stewart continues his run, then Edwards must play the role of fallen favorite. Kind of like, say the Boston Red Sox, whose late-season collapse cost the team a spot in the playoffs. An ominous coincidence is that Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing team is co-owned by John Henry -- the principal owner of the Red Sox.

It's not like Edwards has collapsed, though. His average finish of 5.6 in the Chase is just off Johnson's record average finish of 5.0 when he won the 2007 championship. That's why Edwards remains the point leader even though Stewart has four Chase wins and Edwards none.

What is worrisome about Edwards' Chase is how much he's struggled with his car, including Sunday at Texas -- even though Edwards finished second to Stewart.

"We haven't had a dominant car since Dover,'' Edwards said, referring to the third race of the 10-race Chase. "For us to finish the way we've been finishing without those dominant cars, I think says a lot about our team. But I'm still waiting. Once we get that dominant car, again, I hope we can use it, make the most of it.''

Edwards' issues seem to happen weekly, yet he remains atop the point standings.

• At Dover, Edwards seemed in control until a late speeding penalty on pit road dropped him to 28th. He rallied to third and said afterward: "We were very, very fortunate.''

• At Kansas, Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne went with the wrong setup -- which became clear on the first lap. They fought the car all race and came back, finishing fifth to take the points lead. Said Edwards: "It feels like a win. That is the most we have done with a car that wasn't capable of winning ever.''

• At Talladega, Edwards spent much of the race at the back hoping to avoid any accidents. He did and finished 11th. "I don't know that I have ever been so excited about 11th place,'' he said.

• At Martinsville, Edwards struggled all race but charged late to finish ninth. "That's just a gift to have finished in ninth and have the day we had,'' Edwards said.

The past three races -- Talladega, Martinsville and Texas -- Stewart has finished higher than Edwards. With back-to-back wins for the second time in this Chase, Stewart is building momentum and bravado.

After winning at Martinsville last weekend, Stewart said in Victory Lane that Edwards had better be worried about him and that the final weeks of the season would not be easy for the points leader.

Stewart was calmer after Sunday's win at Texas even when asked what message he had for Edwards this week.

"I'm pretty sure what we did on the racetrack said everything we needed to tell him,'' Stewart said after his 43rd career Cup victory. "Trust me, he knows.''

Stewart boasts about how he controls his own destiny. How he doesn't need any help. All he has to do is outrun Edwards and the title will be his. Edwards counters that he's been the points leader for more than half the season. Sure, his points lead is dwindling, Edwards will say, but all he needs is to be one point ahead by Homestead and he will celebrate his first title.

"We've watched guys make runs at us and fall away, and make runs and fall away,'' Edwards said. "At the end of the day, it truly doesn't matter what [Stewart's team] does or what Tony does or what anyone else does, all we can do is just go do the best that we can do. It might feel comfortable to them 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. I know how good they are, but we're going to be good as well."

The question is can Edwards continue to fend off the challenges, particularly Stewart's charge? Then again, the question for Stewart is which team will show up at Phoenix this weekend and Homestead the following week? Will it be the team that was so strong at the beginning of the year and could have won four early if not for the circumstances? Or will it be the team that seemed mired in mediocrity in the middle of the season?

"It's pretty fun to sit there and watch,'' said Kasey Kahne, who finished third on Sunday, about the Edwards-Stewart showdown. "Tony knows he's the fastest guy. His crew is behind him. They're doing everything right. The problem is they're going against Carl. I watched Tony and Carl. They're going for it. Tony raced me as hard as he ever raced me. They're trying to get as many points as they can. It's intense.''

The intensity will increase this weekend with teams racing at a reconfigured and repaved Phoenix track. Edwards and Stewart were both among the drivers who did the Goodyear tire test and the open test, so they each have four days worth of notes to analyze for this weekend.

But before they get to all that work, there was still a little fun to be had Sunday night.

Texas Motor Speedway promoted the title race between Edwards and Stewart like a championship boxing match with a Don King-like zeal.

One such poster promoting the battle between the two drivers was in the media center. After Edwards' press conference, track officials asked him to sign it. He did and then drew a goatee on Stewart's picture. When it was Stewart's turn, he was told it was Edwards who added the artwork. Stewart smirked. Although Stewart had gone out of his way to not deliver any messages to Edwards via the media moments earlier, now provoked, he couldn't resist having the last word.

Stewart scribbled on the poster a note that referenced his Martinsville comments: "Told you so.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.