Edwards showed the Chase is his to lose heading to Homestead-Miami
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It was only one position, a short distance between them after more than 300 miles of racing, but the one-spot lead Carl Edwards held over Tony Stewart at the finish line on Sunday could play a significant role in Edwards winning his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
For the past three weeks, Stewart finished ahead of Edwards. Shoot, Stewart beat Edwards across the finish line in five of the first eight Chase races but wasn't leading the points because of a poor finish at Dover (25th) and a late stumble at Kansas (15th).
Even as Stewart's momentum grew and Edwards' lead shrank, Edwards contended that he controlled this title Chase. He noted how he's led the points for more than half the season even though he had only one victory. Stewart, though, asserted he was in control. His point was if he continued winning races -- he's won four times in the Chase -- he wouldn't have to worry about points because he would eventually take the lead.
Since Stewart declared after his Martinsville victory that Edwards had better be worried, these two have spent more time talking about their respect for one another. Lifetime Network just might pursue the movie rights to their story.
Last year, Jimmie Johnson, second in the points after this Phoenix race, waited outside the media center until then-points leader Denny Hamlin finished talking to the press. Johnson didn't want to hear what Hamlin had to say. Sunday, Edwards and Stewart sat together, only an empty chair between them.
"If you want, we can eliminate the chair if that would make you feel better,'' Stewart said when the gap between the two drivers was noted.
"We're good, I'll just sit down here,'' Edwards said as he attempted to move to the empty chair while Stewart attempted to move it aside.
"Don't let me pull it out when you try to sit down,'' Stewart said.
"See what kind of guy he is,'' Edwards said as both smiled.
No doubt Darrell Waltrip, once nicknamed Jaws for all his talking, must wonder what has become of this version of NASCAR.
Then again, words weren't needed at Phoenix. Edwards claimed control of this Chase by finishing second, while Stewart was third. In this tight Chase, even such a slim margin can prove pivotal.
The result allowed Edwards to maintain his three-point lead on Stewart heading into the season finale this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- where Edwards has won two of the last three races and finished in the top 10 each of the past six years. Stewart, on the other hand, has only two top-10 finishes in the last six races there.
Although Stewart led the most laps Sunday for the second consecutive race, Edwards showed that he could beat Stewart. That reminds Stewart and his team they are beatable despite the charge they've made in this Chase. It also helps Edwards' team reassert its dominance.
While Edwards has an average finish of 5.2 in the Chase, this has not been an easy two months. He's struggled with setups, fought his car and had to overcome mistakes, including a pit road speeding penalty at Dover that cost him a chance at the win. Being able to handle those pressure situations will help Edwards this weekend should he encounter any problems.
"We don't have trophies lined up, but the recoveries we have made and consistency we have shown and the ability to come back from really tough days, I wouldn't have been able to do it a year or two years ago,'' he said.
The difference is Edwards' emotion; he's in better control of it.
"There are times ... when you can make things worse,'' he said. "This year I feel like we made things better when things were bad. It is a big step. It is tough to do during the race in the heat of the moment.''
Edwards also understands how much momentum matters. He once doubted its impact but has seen how it has carried his team this year.
"Usually the vibe comes from running well and it's not like you can all of a sudden say, 'OK, we're all going to be positive and we're going to win,''' Edwards said at Martinsville this spring about the value of momentum. "You have to be fast and when you're fast, it all just works, everything works out.''
Although Stewart has been faster, it's easy to forget Edwards also has been quick.
Asked about what seems like a lack of speed recently, crew chief Bob Osborne quickly notes that the team finished second at Texas, before Sunday's runner-up finish.
"We're about a second-place car it seems like,'' he said with a smile. "Hopefully it doesn't work out that way in the championship. We're always good at Texas, we're always good at Phoenix. Hopefully, that trend at being good at racetracks carries over because we've been good at Homestead for the past few years. We'll do what we do and try to build great race cars and try to put great setups under the car.''
Sunday's winner, Kasey Kahne, can attest to how strong Edwards and Stewart have been since he's been one of the few who have been able to race with both throughout the Chase.
"It's been fun to watch from my standpoint,'' Kahne said after ending an 81-race winless drought. " To be able to beat them today feels pretty good.
"They've put on a great show. Carl has been really consistent and really fast all season long. Tony's stepped up like no other in the Chase. It's pretty impressive what those two guys have done.''
As this title race comes to a close, Edwards was asked if he was nervous.
"I am not nervous,'' he said. "Maybe I should be, but I am not. I am pretty excited about the opportunity I have here. I have been doing this long enough now. Last year is a good example. I sat back and thought about what I would not give to be going into these last races with a shot at winning the thing. To be able to go out there and perform and do what we do. That is the neatest part.
"The last restart at Homestead, neck and neck, tied and if it's best man win, then the hair might be standing up on my neck. Right now I am looking at this like this is pretty neat to be a part of and it is fun."
It could get better for Edwards come Sunday.