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The Chase - NASCAR's Odd Couple Spar For Championship

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Texas, Nov. 2, 2011: When the words “Carl Edwards had better be real worried. … He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks" tumbled from Tony Stewart’s mouth in Martinsville Speedway’s Victory Lane, a storybook grudge match was born.

A healthy feud blossomed between two drivers overdosing on talent – just about the only thing they have in common. Their differences make you question why they haven’t been going at it for much longer.

Note the accompanying photos. Carl in the white hat. Tony in the black. It’s a perfect illustration of the two prime championship contenders as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ rolls to its final three races.

Their opposite characteristics cannot be ignored. Tony’s Burger King. Carl’s Subway. Tony’s outspoken, quick with verbal jabs – political correctness be damned. Carl’s a sponsor’s dream, a guy you’d want to take home to mom. And last week at Martinsville, when asked what NASCAR personality he’d be for Halloween, Tony said anyone sponsored by a beer company, so it could match what he’s drinking. Carl’s probably doing sit-ups as you read this.

Though there are others very much in contention (Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are only 21 and 27 points out of the lead, respectively), Stewart vs. Edwards will likely attract the spotlight this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Only eight points separate the two with three races remaining in the season.

Carl Edwards: Well, maybe the two DO have something in common, but only if Edwards goes on to win the championship without winning another race. One driver in the Chase era has won the title without winning a Chase race: Tony Stewart in 2005.

It’s doubtful Edwards went winless over the next three. He has a combined six wins at the next three tracks – three at Texas Motor Speedway; one at Phoenix International Speedway; two at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His Driver Rating over the next three tracks is 102.4, which is second only to Jimmie Johnson’s 107.9.

Over the first seven races of the Chase, Edwards has the most top 10s (six) and the best average finish (6.1).

But are those numbers deceiving? Edwards has doubled as a magician in three of the last four races. He has struggled at Kansas (his Driver Rating was 87.6), Talladega (57.2) and Martinsville (79.0), yet crafted finishes of fifth, 11th and ninth, respectively.

How do you analyze that? Is it: “His luck has got to run out one of these days.” Or: “That’s what champions do, and now his bread-and-butter tracks await. He’s got this.”

Tony Stewart: Stewart has sandwiched two finishes outside the top 10 at Dover and Kansas with brilliant runs. His three Chase victories in 2011 match his all-time high. He also had three Chase wins in 2006, a season he did not make the Chase. His Martinsville victory put his Chase wins total at nine, second only to Jimmie Johnson’s 20.

Like Edwards, Stewart has wins at all the remaining tracks: one each at Texas and Phoenix; two at Homestead.

He also has the championship pedigree, something Edwards lacks in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. Stewart, a two-time champion, is the only driver to win under the pre-Chase (2002) and Chase era (2005) formats. A third title would put Stewart’s name among the all-time greats, joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Lee Petty and David Pearson and NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip with three titles. If he does erase the eight-point deficit, he’ll become the first driver-owner champion since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.