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The Chase - Stewart Preview - Texas

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KANNAPOLIS, Nov. 4, 2011: Despite leading the championship standings, Carl Edwards might feel like a character in Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series carnival arrives at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, one can sense something different in the air.

Edwards, not five-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, sits atop the point standings. And Tony Stewart, the last driver not named Jimmie Johnson to win a Sprint Cup title, is just eight points behind Edwards in second place with only three races to go.

In the first seven races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart has won three times, the most recent of which came last Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in a daring, next-to-last-lap pass of Johnson. And there, in victory lane, Stewart threw down the gauntlet: “Carl Edwards had better be really worried. That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.”

A confident Stewart is a dangerous Stewart, especially at Texas, where the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet has a pole, a win, four top-fives, 10 top-10s and has led 554 laps in his 19 career Sprint Cup starts. And, in the last 13 races at the 1.5-mile oval, Stewart has the best average running position (ninth), the best average green-flag speed (173.043 mph), the second-best driver rating (102.9) and has spent a series-high 3,561 laps in the top-15 (81.8 percent).

Something wicked this way comes, and it’s in the form of Stewart, who has lopped 16 points from Edwards’ lead in the last two races.

Now that the series is in Texas, where in addition to his Sprint Cup success Stewart has an IROC win (April 2006) and three IZOD IndyCar Series starts that saw him lead from the pole twice en route to racking up 208 of a possible 624 laps led (33.4 percent), Stewart has another opportunity to usurp Edwards’ status as the points leader. Stewart can gobble up points and reassert the title-winning form that netted him championships in 2002 and 2005.

Sunday’s win at Martinsville, combined with Stewart’s strong history at Texas and equally strong resumes at Phoenix and Homestead (Fla.) – the final two races of the season where Stewart has a total of three wins and 771 laps led (one win at Phoenix with 386 laps led; two wins at Homestead with 385 laps led) – has given the 13-year Sprint Cup veteran the moxie he needs to unseat Johnson and chase down Edwards.

A well-rested Stewart rolls into Texas ready to do what he’s done eight times before in his career – win back-to-back races, something he did to kick off the Chase when he won the first two rounds at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. And Stewart’s last win at Texas? November 2006, after winning the previous week at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The years are different but the tenacity and swagger Stewart carries into the cockpit of his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet remain the same.

“This is a tough series,” admitted Stewart, a seven-time Chase for the Sprint Cup participant. “It’s been a tough Chase. This is the best Chase field we’ve ever had. You work hard all year to try to be in this position and, to be in the position we’re in right now, sitting here knowing we’re right in the middle of this thing with three weeks to go, it’s obviously a great feeling and a great position to be in. We’ve just got to go out and keep doing what we’re doing here.”

What Stewart’s been doing is winning, and he aims to do it again Sunday in the AAA Texas 500.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:

Is the championship down to you and Carl Edwards?

“I wouldn’t say that. There is still Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski and other guys we have to worry about in the points. We’re not just racing the ‘99’ car (Edwards). We’re racing the entire Chase field right now. We’re not focusing on one team. We’re just going to go out and do what we’ve done every week. It’s what got us in this position.”

In your last 13 races at Texas, you’ve earned the second-best driver rating, had the best average running position, the best average green-flag speed and have run in the top-15 a series-best 81.8 percent of the time. How have you been able to adapt to Texas’ layout?

“I’ve found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy who misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn’t make a mistake and you’ve got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track’s a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But, as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car’s handling will become more important. And, when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up.”

Texas is a track where you’ve been consistently good. Does that make you more comfortable?

“Yes, absolutely. It puts you in a positive frame of mind when you go to a track knowing that you’ve run well there before.”

What is it, specifically, that makes you so comfortable at Texas?

“You have to be comfortable or you’re not going to go fast. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go. This track, the grooves have moved around, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve seen the track get wider and it’s made it to where you can move around on the racetrack and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It’s nice from a driver’s perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car’s not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the racetrack and find a spot the car likes better.

“Any time you put more seasons on a racetrack, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole racetrack, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a racetrack and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year we come here, I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the racetrack and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car’s fast.”

A lot of drivers talk about turn two at Texas, where it feels like the banking falls out from underneath them. Can you describe that sensation?

“It does. The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, it’s very abrupt getting in and falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the Indy cars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas. The Indy cars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast, so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom. It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. A lot of times, it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it. Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit. Turn two is the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and, at the same time, make sure you don’t lose the back (of the car). It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.”