It's not over till it's over, but Jimmie Johnson's chances of making it a half-dozen Sprint Cup championships in a row appear razor thin at this stage. There's a new sheriff leading the posse this year, and that's Columbia, Mo.'s, claim to stock-car racing fame, Carl Edwards.
Just three races remain in the 2011 Chase for the Cup, and Edwards holds a single-digit points lead over second-place Tony "Smoke" Stewart, who has been smokin' in NASCAR's 10-race Chase championship series. The No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Chevrolet is 21 points up on third-place Kevin Harvick and 27 ahead of Brad Keselowski. Matt Kenseth is in fifth place, trailing Edwards by 36 points, and defending champion Johnson is in sixth, 43 points behind.
The Sprint Cup field is in Ft. Worth this weekend for the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday. As if the tension among the top Chase contenders isn't already high enough with just three weeks to go, Tony Stewart, last week's winner at Martinsville, issued a stern challenge to Edwards, the driver he is chasing for the championship. "Carl Edwards had better be real worried. That's all I've got to say," Stewart said. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."
With the race victory at Martinsville, Stewart's third in the seven Chase races thus far and his only three wins the entire season, the driver-owner of the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet moved to within eight points of Edwards and the lead in the Chase for the Cup.
Edwards took Stewart's emotional comments from last weekend in stride. "I'm fine with it," Edwards said this week. "It's fun to go back and forth and give each other a hard time, but at the end of the day, I think Tony and myself would be foolish it we thought that all we had to worry about was one another. You've still got three or four guys behind us that are just as dangerous, maybe even more, in this championship." Edwards was speaking specifically of Harvick, Keselowski, his Roush-Fenway teammate Kenseth and Johnson.
"We'll see what happens at Texas," Edwards said. "The last three races, you're going to have to go out there and take every point you can. You're going to have to try to lead laps, try to lead the most laps. It's just too close and too many things can happen. I don't feel any of these guys in the top five or six are going to be laying back," he said.
The last three racetracks in this year's Chase set up favorably for Edwards' run to the championship. In 34 starts combined at Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, Edwards has won six times. That's more than any of the drivers chasing him for this year's Sprint Cup title.
Edwards has 23 top-ten and 16 top-five finishes in his 33 Sprint Cup Series starts this season, but just one win, at Las Vegas back in March.
"To me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going out and doing our jobs, performing the very best we can and taking this championship home with just our one race win at Vegas," Edwards said. "No matter how you slice it, this year has been a great year for us."
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