Edwards, Stewart battle win-win for all

Well, we are down to it.

This Sunday here at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it’s “put up or shut up” time. This is truly a battle to the end. We haven’t had that in a long time. This isn’t one of those type deals where “if you finish 22nd or better you are the champion” or “all he has to do is take the green flag and he’s the champion."

We are talking head to head, nose to nose, wire to wire for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Carl Edwards only has a three-point lead over Tony Stewart going into Sunday’s race. This is the kind of Chase for the Sprint Cup and right-down-to-the-end championship we have all been wanting.

I sat down with both Carl and Tony Thursday morning and we talked at length for an interview you will see over the weekend during the SPEED broadcasts. Now obviously I have known these guys for a number of years. Heck, back in the mid-1990s I even tried to hire Tony to drive for my race team. Both are great guys, world-class race car drivers but, almost to a fault, complete opposites.

We all know Tony is fiery. He’s a throw-back driver to another era. His idol is A.J. Foyt, so that should tell you something. Tony avoids the media. He’s had legendary battles with them. When they antagonize him, well he fires right back at them. Trust me, he will let you know where you stand with him in an instant. Tony is a Burger King kind of blue-collar driver. He likes his adult beverages just as much as the guy who works in the local mill. He’ll show up at the track with two-day old stubble on his face and not give it a second thought.

Carl is more of a new-era type of driver. Carl is more GQ-friendly. He’s clean-shaven and dresses nice. He’s media-savvy. He likes the working with and in the media. He’s had small roles on TV already, like in “24,” and is going to play a Civil War general in an upcoming movie. Carl is a workout fanatic. He’s been on the cover of magazines for his fitness regimen. I mentioned Tony being a Burger King guy, well Carl is a Subway guy.

The contrasts don’t stop there. Tony is a Harley-Davidson guy. Carl is a mountain-bike guy. Tony is quick-witted and shoots from the hip. Carl is more politically correct in the things he says. Tony drives a Chevrolet, Carl drives a Ford. As if all that weren’t enough, the cherry on top is that Carl is right-handed and Tony is left-handed.

That’s just how opposite these guys are. They are just such a contrast in personalities. The winner in all this is NASCAR and, you, the fans.

Tony’s been our champion before. He’s a class act and is a great ambassador for our sport. Should Carl come out on top Sunday, he will be able to handle the role as the face of NASCAR equally as well. Both guys get it. They understand that being our champion is a privilege. They don’t for a second take that for granted. They fully realize and accept the responsibility that comes with being our champion. To me, this is a win-win for our sport.

There is simply no downside to whoever is crowned champion on Sunday.

In the interview I did with them Thursday, Tony was as loose as I have ever seen him. He was throwing good-natured jabs at Carl. He definitely was on his game and rocked Carl back on his heels a couple of times. There were some comments that Tony made where I could see the expression on Carl’s face was like, “Did he really just say that to me?”

Now if you look at Carl and Tony’s 2011 season, you once again have both ends of the spectrum.

Carl only has one win this season and even that was clear back in March at Las Vegas. Carl’s nickname has been Cousin Carl, but this season his nickname should be Mr. Consistency. In 35 races, Carl has the one win, two poles, 18 top fives and 25 top 10s. Think about that last statistic for a second. In 35 races this season, Carl has finished outside the top 10 only 10 times. If you even want a smaller snapshot of what an incredible season Carl has had, just look at the Chase. In the nine Chase races, Carl’s worst finish has been 11th. That is simply the blueprint for how championships are won.

Then there is Tony’s season. Yet again, he has gotten to this point completely opposite of Carl. In the first 26 races this year, of what we call our regular season, Tony had no wins, no poles, only three top fives and only 11 top 10s. Just go back to mid-September after the checkered flag at Richmond that set the 2011 Chase field.

While Tony hung on to make the Chase, do you remember what he said to the media that night? Tony questioned whether he and his team were good enough be in the Chase. He even went so far as to speculate his bunch was taking up a spot that a better-performing team deserved more.

Then once the Chase started and while Carl was putting up consistent finishes, Tony all but stuns the NASCAR world and wins four out of the nine Chase races. This was the same guy that found ways to lose races in the first 26 events and now here he was putting wins up on the board.

So does anyone have an advantage, even a slight one, going into Sunday? Both are red-hot right now. Their pit crews are all but equal. Is there any area of advantage?

I think Carl actually might have an edge when it comes to the crew chief position. Carl and his crew chief Bob Osborne are a great combo and just have that chemistry to the point where they can almost read each other’s minds.

With Tony and his crew chief Darian Grubb, I’ve heard Tony not only question Darian quite a bit on the radio but at times overrule a call that Darian might make. That might be a weakness that Darian has. We know that Tony has had frustration with Darian at times. You can’t discount what they have been able to do in the Chase with these four wins. Now in the midst of this tight championship battle, there are rumors swirling that they possibly might not be together in 2012.

So I give a slight edge to the No. 99 team of Edwards in the crew chief position with Bob Osborne calling the race and making the right calls. Now clearly the biggest advantage that Carl has over Tony is this racetrack. How Carl has performed at Homestead-Miami Speedway has been nothing short of phenomenal. Carl has two wins, but more importantly, an average finish here of 5.7. That is better than any other NASCAR Sprint Cup driver.

Now Tony’s fans will point out that he also has two wins here, but you can’t overlook the fact that his two wins came on the old Homestead track configuration. He won here when it was still basically a flat track while Carl has won on the new progressive-banking configuration. Remember Carl’s 5.7 average finish? Well Tony’s average finish at Homestead is only 12.4. Carl’s also the defending champion from last year’s event.

So when you factor in the crew chief position and the track it is being settled on, I give a slight advantage to Carl. With that being said, Tony is Tony. He is as tenacious a race car driver as has every gotten behind the wheel. Tony is running well and is full of confidence. He has that Earnhardt grin on his face that sends a signal: “I’ve got you right where I want you.”

I could also tell from my interview with the two of them that Tony is getting under Carl’s skin somewhat with his verbal jabs. He can tell Carl is getting a little frustrated with the banter between them. Personally, I love the way Tony is doing it. I’ve “been there, done that” before of getting into a guy’s head and making him think twice or frustrating him enough to get him off his game.

Would it surprise me when the checkered flag falls and these two are tied in the points? No, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. There actually is a mathematical scenario where it is possible. If that would happen, Tony would then win the championship based on having more wins in the Chase than Carl.

So Sunday is going to be tense, dramatic and exciting. Again, you have two different characters with two different approaches that got to this point, yes, two completely different ways. I think this has been the best Chase of all time. I am here at the track. I wouldn’t want to miss out on this for anything.

So Sunday is it. Carl and Tony will be all in, holding nothing back. Sunday will truly be winner take all.