Despite the name — Sprint Cup — America’s most popular form of motorsports is actually a series of grinding marathons. Often, winning a race requires gambling on fuel mileage, tire strategy or a risky pass. And more often than not, such gambles backfire and result in poor finishes.
That’s why, despite NASCAR’s recent attempts to reward winners with more points, the Sprint Cup championship format still favors a conservative approach. Over the long haul, a driver who steadily collects top 10 finishes comes out ahead of the driver who wins one week and finishes 25th the next.
Or does he? This year’s Chase has turned into a head-to-head comparison of these contrasting philosophies. Who will come out on top at Homestead: the comparative tortoise (Carl Edwards) or the proverbial hare (Tony Stewart)?
The Hare: Tony Stewart
Where he sits: 2nd in points, 3 behind
2011 Chase stats
Best finish: 1st (Chicagoland,
New Hampshire, Martinsville, Texas)
Worst finish: 25th (Dover)
Average finish: 6.9
Laps led: 508
Best finish: 1st (1999, 2000)
Worst finish: 30th (2007)
Average finish: 12.4
Most recent finish: 8th
Average Start: 14.4
After a tortoiselike regular season in which he went winless, Stewart transformed himself into a hare as soon as the Chase began. Consecutive wins at Chicagoland and New Hampshire vaulted him from ninth in points to the lead. Then, like the storybook hare, he seemed to lose focus, with consecutive finishes of 25th (at Dover) and 15th (at Kansas).
But since then he seems determined to rewrite the fairytale ending. Two more wins, at Martinsville and Texas, brought him to within 3 points of Edwards going into Phoenix — and that’s where they remained after an afternoon of high drama in the desert.
“He’s keeping me honest, I’m keeping him honest,” Stewart said of his battle with Edwards. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. We’ve got to keep the pressure on. Two weeks in a row we’ve led the most laps. Really proud of that. Proud of the pressure we’re putting on him. A lot can happen in 400 miles next week. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead heat going (to Homestead). We’ve just got to do our job like we’ve been doing. I’m pumped up, I’m excited about it and ready to go.”
The Tortoise: Carl Edwards
Where he sits: 1st in points, 3 ahead
2011 Chase stats
Best finish: 2nd (Texas, Phoenix)
Worst finish: 11th (Talladega)
Average finish: 5.2
Laps led: 226
Best finish: 1st (2008, 2010)
Worst finish: 14th (2004)
Average finish: 5.7
Most recent finish: 1st
Average Start: 13.4
“Tortoise” is a relative term. Edwards has been far from slow in the 2011 Chase. A single spot at Talladega is all that prevented him from stringing together nine straight top 10 finishes, including consecutive runner-up finishes the past two weeks. But he’s won just one race all season, at Las Vegas in March. In fact, his 2011 season as been remarkably similar to the 2003 season that his Roush-Fenway teammate, Matt Kenseth, put together in 2003. That year Kenseth parlayed a single victory — also at Las Vegas in March — into a Cup championship.
And it is widely believed that Kenseth’s single-win championship prompted NASCAR to create the Chase. The new format — and the many tweaks since 2004 — were all designed to make winning a greater factor in determining the champion. And yet, as Edwards has proven this year, consistency remains paramount in Cup racing.
Still, it could take a jackrabbit’s finishing kick to keep the hard-charging Stewart at bay. And fortunately for Edwards, Homestead is just the place where he could do it. But if Edwards wins the championship without winning Homestead, don’t expect him to apologize. “This is the best Chase we’ve ever had,” said Edwards, who closed the 2010 Chase with back-to-back wins.