What we have now is most likely the kind of scenario NASCAR coveted when it, first, created the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and second, restructured the points system for the 2011 season.
By virtue of his fourth win in the 10-race “playoff” in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart moved to within three points of leader Carl Edwards, who finished second, with just two races remaining in the season.
While certainly anything can happen over the next two weeks, it has become abundantly clear that the championship will be most likely decided between Edwards and Stewart, man-to-man.
Use any adjective you wish here – tense, exciting, riveting – the conclusion to the 2011 season looms as all that and the perfect example of what NASCAR hoped to achieve when it created a “playoff” system seven years ago.
Hasn’t always happened, of course, but it has now.
And Stewart has helped make it so. Interestingly, when the Chase began on Sept. 19 at Chicagoland, Stewart hadn’t won a race all year and was ninth in points, 12 behind leader Kyle Busch.
Stewart said his Stewart-Haas team had not performed well enough to be in the Chase and added that he didn’t think he would win any of the 10 remaining races.
He won at Chicagoland to vault to second in points. He then took the checkered flag a week later in New Hampshire to take the points lead.
He was 25th a week later at Dover, then 15th at Kansas. He rebounded somewhat with an eighth-place run at Charlotte followed by a seventh place at Talladega.
By this time he was fourth in points, 19 behind Edwards, who, while he had not won, ascended to No. 1 in points with his remarkable record of consistency.
Stewart won at Martinsville to move within eight points of Edwards and now, with his fourth win in the Chase, he’s just three down.
Edwards has held his lead simply because he has remained consistent throughout the Chase. He has only one finish outside the top 10.
After his Martinsville victory Stewart declared that Edwards had better be worried and would likely lose sleep as the pressure of the championship increased.
“Well, if you can do simple math, you can figure out that we gained over half of the separation in one week and we have two weeks to go,” Stewart said. “It does not take much right now, it is one spot if a guy wins the race, we are doing exactly what we need to do. I am really confident right now.
“We got all the bonus points we could get and got the win. We gained more than we needed to gain on the average for the week, so we are doing good.
“I don’t think we have to say anything more. I think our performance today spoke for itself. Carl knows already, trust me!”
Edwards, who congratulated Stewart after the Texas victory, remains unfazed.
“I just told him ‘good job,’” Edwards said. “He did a great job today. Those guys stepped it up and I’m proud of my guys for hanging on and for still having the points lead.
“At the end of the day we’re going to the final two races. Although we would have loved to have won today in our Aflac Ford, to be three points ahead and then to have the third and fourth-place guys farther behind, it looks like it’s truly gonna come down to Tony and I and that’s gonna be a lot of
Stewart dominated the race, clearly establishing himself as the man to beat.
But the situation was uncertain until the final round of pit stops. That happened with 33 of 334 laps to go. Jeff Burton stayed on the track in an attempt to steal the win by stretching his fuel mileage. But that failed with five laps remaining. That gave Stewart the lead for good.
Stewart and Edwards were two of five Chase drivers to finish among the top 10. The others were Matt Kenseth, fourth, Jeff Gordon, sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh.
Kevin Harvick finished 13th and is fourth in points, 33 behind. Kenseth is 38 back, then comes Brad Keselowski (24th at Texas) 38 down and Jimmie Johnson, 14that Texas following a spin and 55 points in arrears.
Although Harvick, Kenseth, Keselowski and Johnson are still mathematically in the hunt of the championship, realistically their hopes are finished.
Barring a miracle Johnson will not win a sixth consecutive title.
Stewart’s four victories tie him with Harvick for the most this season. Stewart, a two-time champion, has also gained 21points on Edwards in the last three races, to force what will very likely be a highly anticipated two-man battle for the championship.
“At the end of the day, it truly doesn’t matter what the No.14 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,” Edwards said. “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
and, yeah, I don’t underestimate them for a second. I know how good they are, but we’re gonna be good as well.”
As for Stewart, he remains defiantly confident.
“I told you guys all this last week but nobody listens to me when I talk anymore,” he said. “No, I mean we are set on it man, this is just the way it is going to be.”