You couldn't have written a better script for the AAA 500 Chase for the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday than to have points leader Carl Edwards battling it out with Tony Stewart, his closest challenger, right to the end.
Stewart took the checkered flag at Texas on Sunday, giving him back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas, the seventh and eighth races in the Chase series, and victories in four of the eight races in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's version of the NFL and MLB playoffs. The co-owner and lead driver of Stewart-Haas Racing had not won a Cup race all season until the Chase championship series. Since the 10-race season-ending Chase format was started in 2004, no driver has gone winless in the regular season and gone on to win the Sprint Cup Championship.
Edwards, who hails from Columbia, Mo., retained his lead in the Chase standings, but Stewart made up five of his eight-point deficit coming into the eighth Chase race of 2011 and now trails his chief rival for the title by a razor-thin three points. Edwards, who finished in the top-five for the 17th time in 34 Cup starts this season, did manage to put some distance between himself and Kevin Harvick (now 33 points back) and Matt Kenseth (38 points behind), the third- and fourth-place drivers in the standings..
After winning at Martinsville a week ago, Stewart issued an emotional challenge to the points leader Edwards, declaring, "He (Edwards) isn't going to have an easy three weeks." With both Edwards' No. 99 Aflac Chevrolet and Stewart's No, 14 Office Depot Chevrolet qualifying fifth and seventh, respectively, for Sunday's Sprint Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR fans knew the race was on. And the two drivers didn't disappoint.
With just about 60 laps to go in the 334-lap race, the scene was set for a dramatic finish: the top two drivers in the Chase, going toe-to toe in the final laps of the race. Edwards and Stewart made their final pit stops with 33 laps to go. Both took four tires but had fallen back to ninth and tenth when they re-entered the track. The eight cars in front of them had stayed out on track when Edwards and Stewart pitted. Jeff Burton was the only driver among the eight who chose to stay out and try to make it on fuel to the end.
All of the other cars ahead of Edwards and Stewart eventually pitted. Burton was still in the lead with five laps to go when he ran out of fuel. Stewart surged to the front and was never headed on his way to this 43rd career Sprint Cup victory.
"It looks like it's going to come down to Tony and me," Edwards said to reporters back in the pit area after Sunday's race. "I give those guys (the Stewart-Haas team) credit. They've done a good job, but now we get to pull out all the stops here. I think folks ought to stay tuned. It's going to get pretty exciting, and I'm just glad Tony and I are out there and we can race for this thing.
"I don't think we have to say anything," said Stewart about his comments a week ago and letting the No. 14 car do the talking Sunday at Texas. "I think our performance spoke for itself. He (Carl) knows we're there...trust me.
"It doesn't take much right now," he said. "We're doing exactly what we need to do. I'm really confident right now."
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman were mathematically eliminated from Chase contention after Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch was suspended by NASCAR from Saturday's Nationwide Series race and the eighth Chase race for wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in the Camping World Trucks race at Texas on Friday.
There were only five cautions the entire race on Sunday. The first caution did not come until lap 111, which set a new record at Texas Motor Speedway for consecutive green-lap starts.
Another local NASCAR driver, Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., came in ninth at Texas. It was Bowyer's fifth top-10 finish in his last eight races.
The final two races in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup will be next Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway and two weeks from today in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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