Eighteen times in Tony Stewart's NASCAR career he's won two races in a row. And 18 times he's never taken a third straight checkered flag. But I think that trend will end Sunday afternoon at Phoenix, which most drivers are saying will be the most important race of the Chase.
Why? Because after the February Sprint Cup event at PIR, the one-mile flat track was repaved and reconfigured. This means all the set-up notes that crew chiefs have relied on in years past are no longer relevant. And if the balance of a car is off just a tick on Sunday that will translate into trouble, because it will force drivers to ease off the throttle through the corners to maintain control, which in turn slows your lap times.
"Phoenix has a large opportunity, by a landslide, to change the outcome of the Chase," says Carl Edwards, who has a three-point lead over Stewart in the standings. "If Tony and I run 1-2 at Homestead [the season finale], there's not going to be much points change. ... But Phoenix has the potential to be huge."
Edwards should be worried. Though he's failed to win a single race in the Chase, he's been ruthlessly consistent, finishing 11th or better in every event. So far Edwards' steadiness has trumped Stewart's raw speed -- Stewart has four victories in the playoffs -- because Stewart floundered at Dover and finished a points-sapping 25th. But to capture this championship, it's become clear that Edwards likely will need to win at least one of the final two races because of Stewart's surprising surge. Over the last three races, after all, Stewart has gained 21 points on Edwards.
Who will have the edge in the Valley of the Sun? Stewart. During a recent two-day test session at the new-look PIR, Stewart topped the speed chart. Edwards -- and all of Roush Fenway Racing -- struggled mightily; Edwards wound up 28th on the speed chart.
"The setup is going to be hugely important," Edwards said. "The track is very smooth, very easy to drive. I don't know that you'll be able to go there and manhandle the car and hustle it around there like you could the old Phoenix."
Translation: In this race the crew chiefs and engineers that set up the cars will be more important than the drivers.
Edwards has excelled over the first eight Chase races, salvaging good finishes even when his car hasn't been among the fastest on the track. On Sunday he merely needs to stay close to Stewart, which means Edwards will probably need a top-five run to maintain his lead in the standings -- a tough task given the No. 99 team's performance at the test session.
Edwards, though, should have an edge over Stewart in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami. In 12 starts at HMS, Stewart's average finish is 12.4 and he only has two top-10 runs in his last six starts at the 1.5-mile track. Edwards has dominated Homestead, which statistically is his best track on the circuit. In seven starts at HMS, Edwards' average finish is 5.7 and he's won two of the last three races there.
So Edwards' goal for Phoenix is clear: keep Stewart in his sight. If he can do that -- and if he can leave the desert with the points lead or just a few points down -- he'll have the advantage heading to Homestead.
Stewart's goal for Phoenix is also clear: win, seize the points lead, then close out his third Cup title at Homestead by staying on Edwards' rear bumper. It says here he'll accomplish the first part of that plan Sunday.