Edwards, Stewart virtually even in Chase

So this weekend is truly a wild-card race yet again in the 2011 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Phoenix International Raceway has been reconfigured and resurfaced. You have probably heard it mentioned before, but all the NASCAR teams participated in a test session out there since the changes were made. Now while that was helpful, I will again remind everyone that a race is a completely different animal from a test session.

Will it impact the title race? This, to me, is two guys in a heavyweight slugfest. Neither guy has an advantage this weekend. Both are very talented drivers. They live to drive fast race cars. Both of them come from a dirt-racing background.

So now we are going to see if the experience of a two-time Sprint Cup champion like Tony Stewart can outclass the young, hard-charging, never-won-a-Sprint-Cup-championship driver that is Carl Edwards.

I really like how this two-race battle for the championship is shaping up.

If you tried to pin me down on whether anyone has a slight advantage, I would have to go with Tony. He has raced at tracks all over the country. His vast experience allows him to be able to learn a track’s characteristics and how to be fast on it very quickly, even though he might be racing there for the very first time.

The way Tony can adjust his driving style so quickly to the conditions may be what gives him just that little bit of advantage this weekend over Carl.

The key in all this is making sure you realize and focus on one race at a time. Those two guys are only separated by three points. That equates to three positions on the racetrack. That’s how incredibly close it is. It could literally come down next week to whoever finishes ahead of the other at Homestead-Miami Speedway is the champion.

If you watch and listen to Carl, he is portraying how much he is enjoying this experience. That is an excellent way to calm your nerves while projecting an inner confidence. A couple weeks ago, Carl tried to discount Tony’s chances, but as you saw at Texas when he won, Tony basically rubbed that in Carl’s face.

So, right now Tony has the mind game working for him. In addition to that, Tony and his group seem to have a faster race car than Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing team. That obviously could be the deciding factor in these two remaining races.

I’ve heard some comments these last couple weeks from some NASCAR pundits who say that consistency is more important than winning. I disagree with that. Being consistent would not have put Tony Stewart where he is today in the 2011 Chase. It has been his four wins in eight races that have put that coveted third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship well within his grasp.

Let’s face it, that bad finish he had at Dover International Speedway recently put him behind. Those four wins also generated 12 bonus points for Tony, and that has been invaluable. There is absolutely no way Tony would have caught up to Carl without winning races. It simply wasn’t going to happen.

So winning has made all the difference to Tony’s championship dream. Look at it another way, let’s say Tony didn’t win those four races but still finished ahead of Carl each race. Even then Tony wouldn’t have been able to close the gap.

So don’t try and tell me that consistency is more important than winning. Sure Carl could and has finished second, but by winning the race and receiving the bonus points for winning, Tony continued to narrow the gap between them.

Simply put, winning is huge right now.

If Carl were to win at Phoenix, well that is a total game-changer for Tony, even if he were to finish second in the race. The gap would then widen with only the race at Homestead to go.

So I disagree with those that say this new points system rewards consistency more than it does winning. If you don’t believe me, simply go ask Tony Stewart. He’ll be the first one to tell you that if he had not won those races, his 2011 championship dream would be dead in the water.

Remember that Tony didn’t even win any of the first 26 races of what we call our regular season. Heck, if he had won a single race back then, Carl and Tony would be tied right now. Yet again, another example of how much difference winning does make.

Winning is always important. It has been all year. Go ask all those first-time winners we had this year about their feelings on that. Winning has given Tony Stewart new life in this championship. It can’t be overstated.

Tony basically started at the bottom of this year’s Chase because he didn’t have any wins. Now here we are with only two races to go and he is only three points behind Carl Edwards.

The only way to dig out of a hole is to win and Tony Stewart has now shown everyone that.