With only two races left in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, this is shaping up to be the greatest ever.
Tony Stewart won his fourth race in the eight Chase events to pull within three points of leader Carl Edwards. For the first 26 races of the season, Stewart didn’t have a single win.
It’s one of the more amazing ’flick-of-the-switch’ turnarounds in NASCAR history.
Meanwhile, Edwards holds steady. Even though Stewart has been talking confidently with the media and trying to rattle Edwards mentally, Edwards has met the challenge. Although he only has one win on the season (Las Vegas), Edwards has 17 top-five finishes, including Sunday’s runner-up finish at Texas.
Stewart gained five points on him Sunday, but still remains three back which makes this week’s race at Phoenix and next week at Homestead one of the more anticipated events ever in the sport.
We’ve seen great finishes down the stretch like last season when Jimmie Johnson overtook Denny Hamlin to win his unprecedented fifth straight title, but that’s just it. Johnson isn’t involved and there is a bit more excitement with having two new faces finally racing for the title.
Nothing against Johnson, he’s one of the best ever, but NASCAR fans for some reason don’t like continued excellence.
Stewart is a driver that almost everyone universally likes. He’s a two-time NASCAR Champion and is also the last driver other than Johnson to win a championship back in 2005. He is the sentimental choice to win and is now also the co-favorite to win according to odds posted at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Just three weeks ago following Talladega, Stewart was listed at 9-2. Following his Martinsville win two weeks ago, he was even money. With two races left, he is now 10-11 the same odds posted on Edwards even though Edwards has a slight lead.
At this juncture last season, Edwards took control and gave us a preview of what was in store for the No. 99 team in 2011. He won at Phoenix and then Homestead to close the season out.
In their first go around at Phoenix this season in February, Edwards had the best car on the track throughout practice and sat on the pole, but he got was the victim of a loose Kyle Busch car early forcing the team to make an early visit to the garage and eventually settled for a 28th-place finish. Stewart finished seventh in the race.
Stewart won at Phoenix in his first Cup start there in 1999. The win didn’t come as much of a shock because of his past experience there in USAC and Indy cars.
What has been shocking is that he hasn’t won at Phoenix since then, a span of 18 races. He’s been runner-up on three occasions, the last coming in 2009, which is also his last top-five finish on the track.
A great tool to better prepare for who might win this week is to look back at the past races held at Phoenix, Richmond and New Hampshire this season. The February Phoenix race was so long ago that it may not be a great indicator to what will happen Sunday, but Richmond last ran September 10 and New Hampshire September 25 making it very relevant.
Each of three tracks are different in size and configuration, but the flat banking and similar distances make them so similar to the point that most crew chiefs use the same chassis for each of the races.
At Richmond, Edwards finished second with Stewart coming in eighth. At New Hampshire, Stewart won with Edwards finishing eighth.
The driver that perhaps stood out the most in those two races from a consistency basis was Jeff Gordon, who happened to win the Phoenix race in February making him one of the favorites to win this week.
Johnson has been a terror at Phoenix over his last 10 races there finishing no worse than fifth in each start. He has won four times over that span, the last coming in the fall of 2009.
Like his teammate Stewart, Ryan Newman had plenty of USAC experience at Phoenix, but never cashed in on it until last spring when he finally won after 15 starts on the track. Since then, Newman has finished second and placed fifth in February.
Kevin Harvick is sitting third in points, 33-point behind Edwards, and is 30-1 at the Hilton for those thinking that something crazy is in store for us the next two weeks. He is a two-time winner at Phoenix and has finished sixth and fourth, respectively, in his last two starts there.
Kyle Busch comes off his one race suspension and rolls into a familiar place where the Busch brothers have had some past controversy.
In 2005, Kurt Busch won at Phoenix in the spring. In the fall race that year, he was arrested on DUI suspicion in the outside of the Phoenix track. Because he had just signed a deal to move from Roush racing to Penske, an angry Jack Roush suspended him for the Phoenix race. Kyle Busch in a bit of a brotherly love moment, went on to win the race and dedicated it to his suspended brother.
Kyle Busch hasn’t won at Phoenix since then, but did finish runner-up to Gordon this year. Following that race, Gordon was more excited about passing Busch then actually winning the race. Look for a refocused Kyle Busch to come back string Sunday and win.