Edwards-Stewart duel adds flair to Chase

Carl Edwards has been lucky for way too long.

With only three races remaining in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Edwards can’t afford to be merely good; he must be great.

Yes, Edwards has protected his territory at the top of the points standings admirably the past five weeks. In the postseason, his average finish is 6.1.

Edwards is great when it comes to defense. But now it’s time to go on the offensive.

It’s time to win.

For Tony Stewart, the gloves are off. Yes, Stewart can trash talk with the best of racers.

The problem for Edwards is that Stewart can also back up the smack. The eight-point deficit that Stewart’s No. 14 team has right now stood at 19 points before the race at Martinsville Speedway. That’s how quickly an advantage can dissipate in racing.

Stewart-Haas Racing is a relatively young operation. However, the foundation of the company was cemented with key ingredients of Hendrick Motorsports, including engines and chassis. Then there’s Stewart, the only driver to win the NASCAR championship under the previous points system, the original Chase format and an Indy Racing League title as well.

Stewart acknowledged after his win Sunday at Martinsville that, with his team then sitting fourth in the standings, he had nothing to lose.

But Edwards has everything to lose.

While this has been a milestone season for Edwards with the addition of a son and a multiyear/multimillion-dollar contract extension, the wins just have not materialize. He was victorious only once, at Las Vegas, 30 races ago. Stewart has won three times since then, all in the seven races since the Chase began.

Even Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth marvels at Edwards’ good fortune.

“Carl is so incredibly lucky, it’s going to be hard to beat him,” Kenseth told SPEED following the race.

Kenseth is right. At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as competitors ran out of fuel in front of the No. 99 Ford, Edwards salvaged an eighth-place finish. He referred to the result as “a gift.” The following week at Dover International Speedway, Edwards incurred a speeding penalty. He dropped from the top five to 26th, one lap down, and had only 154 laps to recover.

Not only did Edwards recover, he finished third. After Talladega, Edwards said he was “never so excited to finish 11th.”

Then on Sunday, NASCAR waved the black flag on the No. 99 Ford for a pit-lane violation and then rescinded the call. Edwards simply brushed off the incident and kept fighting. He was emphatic that he “didn’t deserve” to finish ninth at Martinsville. But again, he did.

“It’s unreal,” Edwards said following the race. “We were so bad (with) probably 200 laps to go, I was thinking, ‘OK, the Cardinals didn’t give up the other night. That’s a little motivation. Missouri Tigers didn’t give up the other night. That’s motivation.’

“I became all right with the fact we were going to finish 20th or 25th. I was already thinking about Texas, everything we were going to do. My guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate. Just glad we could move on.”

While luck plays a part in any form of racing, momentum factors in, as well. And Stewart is feeling quite confident right now.

“We’ll see what happens at Texas,” Edwards said. “I feel like we’re going to go there and we’re going to have as good a shot to win as anyone.

“On Friday, I told you guys I thought (Stewart) was one of the guys that could win this race and be a guy that you’d have to beat for the championship. I think he’s proven that. He’s proving it right now.

“But, yeah, we’ll have fun. We’ll go race hard. They’re going to have to race us, too. I’m excited about the next three races.”

As solid as Roush Fenway Racing has been on intermediate tracks, Edwards has blue sky ahead of him. He has two wins at Texas, and he finished third on the 1.5-miler in the spring race.

Stewart has only one win at Texas and an average finish of 13.2 in 19 career starts there. But his average in the past three Texas races is 18.3.

Both Edwards and Stewart have one win at Phoenix International Raceway, but with the new reconfiguration of the track, that race will be a crapshoot for everyone. The Chase racers each participated in both tire tests at the track and appeared fairly comfortable with their results.

Speaking of reconfigurations, Stewart hasn’t enjoyed the same success at Miami-Homestead Speedway as he did when he won the first two races at the track. In the past four years, he has either run inside the top 10 or outside the top 20. If "Smoke" loses control — as was the case when his temper got the worst of him and he tangled with Juan Pablo Montoya — there’s no telling where the No. 14 Chevrolet might be scored in the season finale.

At Homestead, it’s advantage Edwards. Not only has he won two of the past three races at the track, he has completed every lapped race and boasts an average finish of 5.7 — by far the best on the Sprint Cup tour.

Regardless of the breaks that have fallen Edwards’ way, there’s nothing that can substitute for performance. Yes, Edwards has enjoyed the advantage of leading the points 21 of 33 races, but he needs to win if he expects to stay on top.