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Jack Roush's guys are top dogs in qualifying, Greg, David and Matt. But Tony Stewart has Big Mo...and Danica Patrick to boot

 Danica Patrick, and new NASCAR team owner Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern



   FORT WORTH, Texas
   Jack Roush's guys went 1-2-3 in qualifying for Sunday's Texas 500, and NASCAR championship contenders Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards will start fifth and seventh, respectively…with the charging Stewart declared he's got Edwards, the Sprint Cup tour points leader with only three races to go, "backed into a corner" in their title challenge.
   And maybe it's time to ask NASCAR why a man who has won three of the seven playoff races is still behind a man who has not won any chase races. Perhaps there still isn't enough championship focus on winning races…
   But the tight championship battle isn't the only story here.
   Cue Danica Patrick.

   Yes, the Daytona 500 will feature Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup debut in a Tony Stewart stocker in 12 weeks, as one of 10 tour events on her 2012 NASCAR schedule announced here Friday.
   But she probably won't be wearing the six-inch black stilettos she was wearing here Friday while announcing her stock car racing plans for next season.

   That the diminutive 29-year-old racer has used her sex appeal as good marketing is nothing new, of course, as anyone who has watched her Go Daddy commercials would know. And after finishing her hour-long press conference Patrick put the striking peek-toe high heels back in a bag and switched to more comfortable flats for hiking back to the NASCAR garage.


Danica Patrick, six inches taller in those stilettos. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Patrick, who got glowing praise here from car owner Stewart, an Indy-car racer himself once upon a time, will run the full 33-race NASCAR Nationwide tour next year, for Rick Hendrick-backed JR Motorsports, the Dale Earnhardt Jr. operation that she has raced for part-time the past two seasons.
   But it is the Indy-car star's Cup races that are the headliners, as Patrick makes a decisive career switch to NASCAR stockers after seven years on the open-wheel tour.
   Stewart announced eight of those 10 Cup stops:
   Daytona Feb. 18th, Darlington May 12th, Bristol Aug. 25th, Atlanta Sept. 2nd, Chicagoland Sept. 16th, Dover Sept. 30th, Texas Nov. 4th, and Phoenix Nov. 11th.
   The other two – perhaps more, depending – are to be announced later, depending on how Patrick's Nationwide career progresses next spring and summer.
   Stewart says the limited schedule will be tuned to set Patrick up for a full-time Sprint Cup effort in 2013.
   While Patrick's number has been 7 for much of her professional career, she said she didn't even bother asking Robby Gordon for that number for her Cup car, which will instead be numbered 10. Gordon, an Indy-car racer at times himself too, hasn't been much of a Patrick fan over her career.
   Patrick, NASCAR executives are hopeful, should drive increased ticket sales and better TV ratings, which could well be part of the thinking behind her 2012 track selections.


Tony Stewart, expanding his Sprint Cup operation to a three-car team, with Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    So it was a 'good Tony' day, with Stewart again in a great mood when bantering with the media.
    After throwing down the gauntlet after an amazing comeback win at Martinsville, Stewart quickly vowed Edwards wouldn't get much sleep these final weeks of the season.
   And Friday he added some heat, saying "I've got him backed in a corner."
   Though Edwards holds an eight-point lead over Stewart, Stewart appears to have momentum going his way, while Edwards has suffered two bad weekends in which he's had to work hard to salvage a decent finish. "I do feel like luck has been a huge part of our chase, but that's okay with me," Edwards says. "We've had bad luck too in these chases."
   Is this championship Edwards' to lose? After all these last three races are at tracks that have been very good to Edwards.
   Edwards pauses for a moment at the question. Then comes back with a yes, with a twist: "That's how I feel.  That's my opinion.  I feel we can do it. 
   "I feel we've escaped some of our bad tracks, and bad days, and still been able to fight and claw and come up with something good.
    "Now we're going to some tracks that we can run well.
    "But I also understand how much can go wrong.  I know things that can happen, and it's not over until it's over."


What's this, a beard on Carl Edwards? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Then Edwards offered a quiet personal note, reflecting on his championship losses in 2005 to Stewart and 2008 to Jimmie Johnson.
     "I don't know if I've ever really talked about this, but I truly learned some valuable lessons in 2005 and 2008," Edwards said.
    "In 2005 we were leading the (final) race at Homestead.  I think I almost put Tony a lap down to win that championship…and it didn't work out.  He ended up winning, and we ended up tied for second. 
    "That was my first shot at a championship.  Right then I thought 'Aw, that's no big deal.  We'll win it next year.'  That was obviously pretty naïve.
    "Then in 2008 we were very, very fast and really good at every track.  I learned a lot of lessons through losing that one -- making a mistake and having a part failure (at Charlotte). 
     "But the biggest thing I learned is that at the end of the day what I do and how I value my performance and my abilities as a driver is how I perform.  If I go out and perform the way I can, and everything works out, great.  If I go out there and perform the way I can, and things don't work out, and I don't win the championship, well that's great too. That's all I can do. 
    "Win, lose or draw, I'll be back here next year…the year after that, and the year after that.  We're going to be tough for a long time.
    "So what I'm doing is trying not to let myself think about this particular championship. I'm not putting a bunch of importance on it…
     "I don't go to bed thinking about this thing. I'm (just) trying to go do my job."
     And Edwards insists he's still sleeping well:  "Yeah.  I've got two kids at home, so a little extra noise is not going to keep me up any longer.  I've been sleeping real well."

    Edwards says the bantering with Stewart "is in good fun," though Stewart keeps getting more pointed in his tone.


And Matt Kenseth says don't put the fork in him quite yet in this title chase. After all, he blew away the field here in April in winning (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    And Edwards says "This week I've thought a little bit about who my real competition is. And -- no offense to Tony -- but I think the guys that are behind him are the guys who have the biggest chance of doing well over the next three weeks. They've shown they can run up front all year. And although Tony could go on a roll, what I've been sticking to this week is that it would be foolish of me to just focus on him and not pay attention to these other guys."
   Besides, Edwards notes, "All the talk in the world doesn't mean anything.  You have to go out here and perform. And that's what we're here to do."

   And what about teammate Matt Kenseth, who may have lost the championship in last weekend's crash-filled Martinsville 500, in which he had a series of costly run-ins with Brian Vickers?
    Kenseth insists he's not out of it yet. "For me every week is a new week. When you spend time worrying about that, making problems for other people doesn't really help anybody.
    "So I'm kind of over it."
    Kenseth points to one of the flaws in the NASCAR championship points system: "It seems like it's hard to make up very many points, but it's easy to lose a lot. 
    "I wish I wasn't so far behind. 
     "I wish I was a little smarter and could start over last week.  But you can't.
    "We're down but we're not out."
     The Vickers' run-ins, though, still nag. "If I was going to do it over, I would make different decisions," Kenseth says. "Even though he ran into me nine times, I would probably just forget about it and lost that spot…and move on to the next week."

  Oh, by the way, Greg Biffle won the pole Friday for Sunday's 3 p.m. ET Texas 500 at a sizzling 193.736 mph. And he got this neat Turnbull 1886 deluxe take down rifle to play around with. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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