This battle just keeps getting better

BY Larry McReynolds • November 14, 2011

After what we saw Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, is there anyone out there that doesn’t agree we are witnessing one of the epic championship battles in the history of NASCAR? Go back one week to Texas Motor Speedway: Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ran together all day and finished first and second.

Then if you look at Phoenix, in the first half of the event, those same two guys had run in the top three for every lap to that point.

Then if you look at the entire race, those two battled in the top five the whole race. Carl finished second and Tony finished third. However, because Tony led the most laps again this week, he picked up a bonus point from that and they head into the Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway still separated by only three points.

So now we are down to it. It’s a two-man showdown going into the final race of the season. I mean, this is exciting. It’s exciting for the fans, it’s exciting for the sport and, trust me, it is really exciting for those two drivers, teams and organizations. It sets up some really remarkable scenarios.

Now I know over the next few days you are going to hear a number of possible scenarios. I am not going to bury you with them, but I do want to share this one that I came up with last night, because it would make for an even more unbelievable finish to our 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

So here goes – if Tony wins at Homestead and Carl finishes second but leads the most laps, well guess what? Those two guys would tie in the points. Tony would then win the championship in the tiebreaker by having more wins.

I don’t think either guy is worrying about scenarios. Both these guys are hard-nosed racers. Now it simply comes down to who wants it more. Both guys know that if they want to be the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, they have to go out there, lead laps, hopefully lead the most laps and win the race.

This is a dead heat to me. People have been asking me to pick one or the other. If you go back and simply look at how both teams performed at Texas and then Sunday at Phoenix, then you can hopefully appreciate why I am not bold enough to pick one over the other.

Homestead is only on our schedule once a year. Everyone knows it changes every time we go back. Sure Tony has two wins there, but this is a completely different track from the last time he won there. And don’t forget, Carl’s won two of the last three races at Homestead.

With that said, I still cannot see where either guy has an advantage. This is a 1.5-mile track and we know how well Tony and Carl run on those types of tracks. Homestead is more like Las Vegas. So who won Las Vegas? Carl Edwards did. But who dominated the Las Vegas race? Tony Stewart.

I mean you might as well close your eyes and throw a dart if you want to try and pick one over the other. Carl Edwards' worst finish in nine Chase races has only been 11th at Talladega. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart has four wins and is leading a ton of laps.

Can this championship battle get any closer? Hollywood couldn’t have written a movie script any better than this.

I guarantee you this championship battle has far surpassed everyone’s expectations when we started the 2011 season. We all knew and expected the changes to the points system and to how folks qualify for the Chase starting this year were going to be positives. I doubt anyone saw this kind of excitement coming.

I also love the fact that our year of surprises continued at Phoenix. We’ve now run 35 NASCAR Sprint Cup points races in 2011. When Kasey Kahne took the checkered flag Sunday he became our 18th different winner. Think about that for a second. That means an average of a different winner every two races. That is unbelievable for our sport.

I have to admit I was skeptical when plans to change the configuration at Phoenix were announced. Sunday was a good race and, trust me, it is only going to get better there.

I also want to touch on the Kyle Busch situation. I was one of the more vocal ones that came down on Kyle for what transpired at Texas. With that said, I also have to give credit to him, his team and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization for the way they have handled things.

This past weekend at Phoenix they handled things about as professionally as you could. I believe Kyle needs to be commended for that. From everything I saw and heard from Kyle this past weekend, it’s my belief he handled everything with a lot of professionalism and dignity.

So with all the pressure from what happened two weeks ago, Kyle climbs in that race car at Phoenix ready to get back at it, but doesn’t even get a lap in because they lose an engine. So they lose most of that first practice changing the engine and are forced to start dead last on Sunday.

Kyle goes out there and races his way to third and then loses yet another engine. I think that was the sixth in-race engine failure for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011. That was a Joe Gibbs Racing engine, so if anyone needs more proof of why Joe did what he did with merging programs with TRD, well Sunday was yet another example.

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