It is the most grueling, grinding schedule in all of sports. For nine straight months, with only a few weekends off, the drivers and teams in NASCAR fight for track position. They fight for it in the Carolinas and in California, against the backdrop of the plains of Kansas and the desert of Nevada. They fight for it in the chill of late winter through the cool of late fall. They fight for it on short tracks and big tracks, on ovals and road courses. Sometimes, when you're caught up in the middle of it in a place like Pocono, Pa., in the long, languid days of summer, you swear this fight will never end.
But here we are, after 35 races, after thousands and thousands of miles have ticked off the odometer, and what have these nine months of fighting for space on the track really amounted to? This: 30 feet of real estate.
That's what Carl Edwards' three-point lead over Tony Stewart essentially amounts to if you consider that one point is worth one position on the track and, if you lined up the cars at the start of the race, three positions would be roughly 30 feet. In the Chase era, which began in 2004, this is the closest two drivers battling for the title have ever been heading into the season finale at Homestead.
So which driver do you like?
Edwards, 32, who never has won a Cup title, has quietly dominated the entire season. He has more top-five finishes (18) and top-10s (25) than anyone in the Cup series and he's held the points lead for the majority of the last nine months. Yet he only has one regular-season victory and zero wins in the Chase. The fact that he sits atop the leaderboard is a testament to his consistency; his worst finish in the playoffs was an 11th-place run at Talladega. So if you're a fan of steadiness and reliability -- think of a guy who is always on time -- then Edwards is your man.
Stewart, 40, a two-time Cup champion, has been the opposite of Edwards. He started fast -- he arguably had the fastest car in the first three races of 2011, yet failed to take a checkered flag due to bad luck and bad pit calls -- then struggled over the summer. He was so slow in June that he said his team didn't deserve to make the Chase.
But Stewart did advance to the 10-race playoff, and he suddenly came alive when it mattered most. He won the first two Chase races (his first victories of the year) and then reached Victory Lane at Martinsville (Oct. 30) and Texas (Nov. 6). But he also finished 25th at Dover in September and 15th at Kansas a week later, which is why he's not leading the points right now. So if you're a fan of all-or-nothing experiences -- think of a guy who sometimes shows up on time and dazzles you and sometimes never shows up at all -- then Stewart is your man.
Those close to Stewart like to joke that he operates on "Tony time," because Stewart has a penchant for being either incredibly early for an appointment or ghastly late. Well, I think it will be Tony's time on Sunday. As I wrote in the magazine this week, he's my pick to win the title.
The statistics clearly favor Edwards; he has a better career-average finish at Homestead than Stewart (5.7 versus 12.4), and Edwards has won two of the last three Cup races at the 1.5-mile track. But this year, in this Chase, it has been impossible to divine anything about Stewart based on his past performance. He's on one of the most impressive nine-week runs of his career. And now Stewart knows, regardless of where Edwards finishes on Sunday, he can win the Cup if he wins on Sunday.
Here's how I think it will play out: The two will reach the front of the pack relatively early. Then, for two-thirds of the race, they'll carefully stalk each other. The key will be the final pit stop and which team can make the most precise adjustment to the car there to enable their driver to speed through the corners just a tick faster than the other.
In big moments like this -- if this does indeed happen, of course -- I like Stewart. In my decade of covering NASCAR, I've never seen him come in second when so much is on line. In fact, in Stewart's entire racing career, dating to his days of racing on dirt as a kid in Indiana, he's never finished runner-up when he was in a tight battle for a championship. Never.
I say he takes the checkers on Sunday -- and it will be by fewer than 30 feet over Edwards.