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Tony Stewart on the prowl: Can he catch Carl Edwards? Ol' Smoke is loving the chase...and Danica Patrick has a frontrow seat

  Another Good Tony weekend. Does he really have title rival Carl Edwards cornered? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   FORT WORTH, Texas
   You can see it in Tony Stewart's eyes, the fire.
   The fire of anticipation.
   He's got prey in sight and preparing to pounce.
   And he's going to milk this moment for all its worth.

   Heck, you can always see it in Tony's eyes: the emotion du jour, be it anger, exasperation, glee. Tony Stewart does not hide his feelings well. But then he doesn't try to.
   This particular weekend Tony's eyes are the eyes of an animal that has cornered its prey.
   Now Carl Edwards, who has dominated the NASCAR tour most of the season, indeed since the start of his most recent surge last fall, might not see it quite like that. Certainly he doesn't want to see it like that.
   Yet there is a sense that the hard-charging Stewart has Edwards backed into the ropes (continuing the boxing metaphor that promoter extraordinaire Eddie Gossage has going here with this championship thing).
   Has Stewart gotten into Edwards' head? Stewart laughs: "He's growing facial hair we've never seen him have, and he's saying stuff we've never heard him say….I don't know what's going on with him this week."
   But then Stewart has won a lot of championships in his time, two NASCAR Cup titles, the Indy-car title, USAC titles galore (the three biggies in one season, in fact). "And we've lost our share too."
   Stewart says that's one of his strengths at this moment – that he knows just what's going on in these final days of the Sprint Cup season. And he's going to play this hand all-in.
   "I know what to expect, I know what's going on, it's not a new experience for me…and it's definitely not an experience I'm uncomfortable with," Stewart says, exuding confidence the ball is clearly in his court now.
   "That's why I've been walking around all week with a smile on my face – I'm very comfortable with where we're at, and I've very confident in what we've got for these next three races."


Game face: Carl Edwards, looking for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, with 15 days left in the season and an eight point lead (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Is Carl Edwards' run finally running out? It's been a long, good one, since sometime late last season. But are Edwards' stumbles at Talladega and Martinsville signs he's running out of gas, or just a couple of bumps in the championship road?
  Whichever, Tony Stewart has clearly caught fire since Labor Day. If last Sunday's Martinsville 500 was the make-it or break-it afternoon for Stewart, well, he made it pay off big.
   And that has completely changed the dynamic of this season's championship playoffs.
   It's taken Stewart more than nine months to get to this point. It hasn't been a great year, to say the least, until lately.
   Just at Bristol in late August Stewart was at the lowest of lows – winless in nearly a year, and in the Tennessee Blue Ridge that weekend he had the slowest car in the field. Officially the slowest car of the 46 at that track. While teammate Ryan Newman was on the pole.
    And that came barely a week after Stewart had railed he didn't deserve to be in the championship playoffs at all if he couldn't run any better than he and crew chief Darian Grubb were running.
   Fast forward:
   So here's ol' Smoke, eight weeks or so later, lazing it out on a beautiful blue-sky fall afternoon on the north Texas plains, during a break at the track, while Edwards and rivals are sweating out the finer points of Sunday's Texas 500.
    And Texas Motor Speedway, remember, has long been one of this sport's meanest, cruelest tracks, which has left its mark on many of NASCAR finest over the years, Jeff Gordon, Mike Skinner, Ricky Craven. Not a track to turn your back on.


Blue skies all around Texas Motor Speedway...especially for Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   And just what is Smoke doing at the moment?
    Firing up his audience with some championship zingers: "I've him backed into a corner," he says of Edwards.
    But Stewart is also taking considerable time, more than an hour really, to 'present' Danica Patrick as the newest member of his team, and to banter with the diminutive Indy-car star, now transplanting into the world of the good ol' boys, about her journey ahead in this branch of the sport. "Pre-race meal? I eat Oreos, plenty of Oreos….probably as many as you weigh," Stewart said with almost a giggle.
    That would be about 100 pounds…which she packs on a 5-2 frame that makes Mark Martin look almost giant.
    Stewart has a lot on his plate at the moment, not just Danica, not just championship. "I've got about eight jobs," he says, with a slight trace of weariness? "But it's a piece of cake. I'm a single guy, no wife and children to go home to; don't have to dedicate time to a family. Racing is my family. I like staying busy like this. I wouldn't know what else to do."
   Indeed for more than an hour Stewart held court, easily wheeling and dealing about everything under the sun. This, from a man who has had interviews this season that have last all of 30 seconds….
   But now for ol' Smoke, life is finally good again.
   A third NASCAR championship? Stewart is fired up.
    Martinsville was Stewart's third win of the playoffs. Edwards, who has had two straight mediocre weeks, is still winless on the tour since March at Las Vegas.
    Still Edwards is atop the Sprint Cup standings (albeit by just eight points), and these final three tracks, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, are three of his best.
    So is this championship Edwards' to lose?
    Something of a trick question perhaps. Edwards, optimistic about the outcome, says yes. Stewart, who says he can beat Edwards straight-up, says no.
    "How many points difference between first place and second – three," Stewart says. "How far are we behind: eight.
   "So if we win all three races and he runs second, we've taken it from him. He didn't lose it; we took it from him.
   "Now if there were a bigger gap, and all he had to do was finish right behind us, then I'd agree with you that it's his to lose. But we can take this from him."
    With Edwards coming in here after two bad races, Stewart says "I feel I've got him backed in a corner, I really do.
   "These are three tracks I like. I really run well at them. I really look forward to racing here at Texas. We had a good test at Phoenix (on the new asphalt). And Homestead is a track I like, even though we haven't won there since the redesign; I like the style of racing we have at Homestead.
   "So we can still go out there and take this from him. We don't have to worry about what he does; all we've got to do is control our destiny.
   "Now I didn't believe I could win three races in this chase, and I'd love to say 'Yes, we can win these last three.' But there are a lot of variables out of our control. But we're going to control what we have control of, and let the rest fall into place."

    Tony 'Smoke' Stewart, who has long been playing his career well in style with mentor A. J. Foyt, fiery, impetuous, quick to shoot, always ready for a good fight, be it with some rival blocking too hard or some journalist asking too dumb a question. Tony Stewart does not accept fools lightly. He can take your head off in a heartbeat, and he doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger.
    However these past few weeks it's been 'Good Tony,' for some reason. Heck, he even gave a spot back at Martinsville to a rival….
    Maybe this is Smoke's championship cool…..
    In victory at Martinsville Stewart vowed Edwards wouldn't be sleeping very well these final weeks of the season. And he repeated that here: "I've been racing 31 years, and we've been in a lot of championship battles, and I know that feeling when you know you've got that shot again…
   "I'm looking up; I'm not looking behind, I'm not looking at Carl, I'm just looking at my car. And you can see that in what we're doing here this weekend.
   "We feel we're in the Matt Kenseth mode – I'm not normally a good qualifier, so if I qualify well, we usually race well."
   And Stewart did qualify well, fifth fast, just ahead of Edwards, for the 3 p.m. ET start.
   Sleep? "I don't need to sleep," Stewart says with a grin. "Yes, I have heard that kids (Edwards now has two) can keep you up at night. But I've got a got a dog who sleeps through the night, better than me….."  

   Now here's part of this complicated setting:
   -- Danica Patrick, though perhaps talented, and certainly up to the challenge, and now with two years of part-time Nationwide stuff under her belt, is going to be a project. Even Patrick probably doesn't realize just what she's up against in this venture, though she talks a good game about it all.
   Stewart, with Rick Hendrick engineering of course, is going to be running Patrick's Cup part of her 2012 run. And all the pieces in this puzzle still haven't been put together. There's funding for 10 Cup races, just enough races to make her troublesome on the track, especially with a fall-heavy lineup, right in the heart of the chase.
   She'd better not be a dart without feathers…..Nationwide is one thing, but Cup is a whole different game, much more cutthroat. Not just the racing, but the sheer endurance factor of the game at this level. She'd better be pumping a lot of iron.
  And Tony Stewart, who doesn't always have the most stable personality it must be said, is going to be her mentor….
  "We've got our program (in its third year now) up to where we got both teams in the chase, and we're contending for the championship, and that's proof we've got our program to where it needs to be, so we can accommodate that third team….
   "Timing is everything."

  -- The other part here, of course, is Edwards. When Stewart made that most unexpected, improbably comeback at Martinsville, it may have taken Edwards aback. Stewart certainly stunned Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon with that victory.
   "We're ready for this, we're ready for these next three races," Stewart says, the fire clear in his eyes.
   "Going into Martinsville we felt good we were still in the hunt….but the way we ran last Sunday, and more so the way we were able to rebound from a really slow start to the day and overcome it and have such a dramatic finish…when you get something like that with just three weeks to go, you've got something going on.
   "When you're having a day like the way it started for us at Martinsville, it's easy to get frustrated. The changes just weren't working for us, so Darian had to make some big swings at it. And he had two really good pit calls to get us track position."
    Another aspect of Stewart's day at Martinsville – drivers there, even normally cool customers like Matt Kenseth, got too caught up in the fireworks, 18 crashes over the four hours. But Stewart – and remember how he's handled things elsewhere this season, like with Brian Vickers at Sonoma – isn't always the coolest guy out there. How did he keep his cool when all about were losing their heads….and their championship opportunities?
   "Well, I did makes some mistakes, like one time I put AJ Allmendinger in a bad spot….but – and I didn't see anybody else do this – I let off the gas and gave him the spot back," Stewart said. "AJ didn't deserve to lose that spot because I made a mistake."
   Edwards probably won't get quite as much respect in the final 15 days of the season….
   And that tussle with Denny Hamlin, when Hamlin was leading and Stewart was desperately trying to stay on the lead lap?
   "Tony never races me that hard ever," Hamlin says. "He was pinching me down, pinching me on the curb, chopping us. I said over the radio if the roles were reversed, he would have 'sent' me into the fence. But Tony called me quickly: 'I felt like a jackass racing you that way, but I was just fighting trying to make something happen,' and I understood. 
    "He said down the road he'll repay that favor, and I think he will.  He's always been great racing to me, and that's why I showed him the respect."
    Another man that afternoon might well have simply ended Stewart's title charge with one swift punt….  
    And then the replay of those final laps is pretty amazing too: Jimmie Johnson, race favorite, on the preferred inside line for the final restart with just three laps to go, and Stewart on the outside. Johnson should have easily beaten Stewart; but Stewart managed somehow to get around Stewart and charged on to victory.
    But then this entire Tony Stewart turnaround the past eight weeks has been almost stunning. Until September he wasn't even a player most weeks. "We just had weird stuff happen, stuff we've never had happen before, and we couldn't get it all sorted out before the end of the race," Stewart reflects. "Maybe it's just been a deal of getting all that bad luck out of the way…
   "The last seven weeks we've been back to normal."
   And the Danica factor in all this….
   "It's been a busy week, no question," Stewart says, cool and loose, unusually so, exuding confidence and replying to every question.
   "But we're looking bigger picture – this is a big day for Danica. It's not a distraction. And it's nice to do it at Texas, a place we like anyway."   
    In fact the Danica thing might serve as a good release for Stewart from the championship pressures. Stewart says he admires the way Patrick has been able to perform under such pressure and scrutiny…and criticism.
    "A lot of people have a lot of respect for her and what she's doing, and how she's able to do what she does, with all the pressure," Stewart says. "I'm excited for her.
   "And I've been in those (Indy) cars, so I understand why she asks the questions she asks. We are a natural fit."
   One obvious question is why should Danica Patrick succeed at NASCAR if an Indy-car champion like Sam Hornish can't. And Hornish's racing credentials are much more impressive than Patrick's. Plus, NASCAR rules bar outside testing at NASCAR tracks, which
    Stewart in response points to Juan Pablo Montoya, who has made the transition well. "Juan made it work. Some people do, and some people don't.
   "You've seen guys like Jacques Villeneuve and Dario Franchitti who have never figured it out. And these are accomplished drivers.
   "From what we've seen in Danica, she's starting to figure things out. She's a sponge; and I think she has a mindset that some of the guys who didn't make it didn't have."
   But much of that is for next season. The mindsets everyone here is studying are Tony Stewart's and Carl Edwards'.

    Tony Stewart, here with his newest teammate Danica Patrick, and Smoke is exuding championship cool (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





if you look into his

if you look into his sunglasses real hard you can see a couple big macs and a oxygen tank

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