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And now 267 laps -- 400 miles -- to determine if Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart wins this year's NASCAR championship

 Carl Edwards: The final race, after 10 long months on the stock car racing trail. Will he come home with his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Carl Edwards put his foot down Saturday afternoon.
   Now can he do it again Sunday, in NASCAR's season finale, with the Sprint Cup championship on the line.
   After listening to big-talking Tony Stewart for several weeks now, Edwards appears ready to play his trump card in the title chase – at Homestead Miami Speedway, where he's won two of the last three 400s.

   Edwards (175.467) will start Sunday's 3 p.m. ET race, number 36 of the season, from the pole, seven rows ahead of Stewart, who comes into this race with more tour wins over the past two months than Edwards has posted over the past three years…..though Stewart is still three points behind in the playoffs.
   While reading Stewart has been easy the past several weeks, reading Edwards and his mindset has been quite difficult. Either Edwards is getting very nervous about the possibility losing this title – and his championship losses by such narrow margins in 2005 and 2008 have seemed to be front and center – or he is simply playing this poker game very cagey.
    "It is really neat to be part of a battle like this," Edwards says. "It is great to be on the pole. But it is just one lap and tomorrow we have 267.
   "We were just hoping to start in front of Tony somewhere, and preferably the top-five. The pole is a gift."
   And the race itself? This thing is a good three hours, and it will almost certainly end under the lights.
    "There were a lot of fast cars in practice….and it didn't look like we were head and shoulders better than anyone else," Edwards said.
    "I'm here to do a job, and to do it well…and it doesn't matter what's said or what happens until that checkered flag falls."


Tony Stewart: Going for his third NASCAR championship. The setup is simple: Carl Edwards should have a slight edge...but if Edwards loses another championship run, the effect could be devastating. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Over on the other side of ring, things are quite different.
   Stewart and crew chief Darien Grubb – whose future is unsettled as the season closes – have said their game plan here is simple – win the race. Then, no matter what Edwards does, Stewart will win the championship, which would be the third of his NASCAR career.
   However Edwards may have a slight edge at this 1-1/2-mile variably-banked track at a place that bills itself as the Gateway to the Keys.
   Edwards has had one of the fastest, strongest cars all season, but he's only scored one win, at Las Vegas in March, a race that Stewart dominated until a pit road miscue.
   Stewart, who concedes he's not much of a qualifier, said he spent most of the Saturday practice time (after Friday's rainout) working on race setup. And, looking at the timing charts for the day, Stewart said "I'm pretty content right now."
   Stewart won Martinsville and Texas the past three weeks and dominated Phoenix last week until a late race strategy gamble didn't quite pan out, leaving him third, right behind runner-up Edwards.
   Though this track, just south of Miami, has been on the tour 12 years, it still is somewhat of a question mark, both because of the fast-changing weather and the fact that teams race here only once each year – and usually the final race of the season is a throwaway for most drivers, long out of the title hunt.
   Stewart says speed isn't all there is to this place; a crew has to have a game plan to 'chase' the changing track and a car that accepts chassis changes.
   "The good news is every time we made a change it responded in some way, and that is a really good sign," Stewart said. "It is hard when you make changes to the car and it just doesn't react to anything. That’s when you get nervous."
    Nervous has not been part of Stewart's vocabulary since he and Grubb began their surprising Labor Day weekend turnaround. In fact Stewart's confidence, and his almost boastful attitude, has been striking.
    Whether that's just gamesmanship or if Stewart really knows more about things than he's letting on isn't clear.
    Edwards, for his part, has seemed somewhat tentative the last few weeks, particularly since Stewart's strong victory at Texas, a track that Edwards figured would be his 'closer.'
    When Edwards only ran second to Stewart at the Fort Worth track two weeks ago, his attitude appeared to change considerably, since that track and this track have similar characteristics.
    Still – and this is probably something for NASCAR CEO Brian France to consider during the short off-season – Stewart, for all his prowess, has yet to make it to the top of the Sprint Cup standings….something that Edwards threw in Stewart's face here the other day.


Great weather Saturday at Homestead Miami Speedway....but it's South Florida, and the weather can be fickle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne appear to have focused a lot of effort on the pole, perhaps to make a statement about their Ford's speed.
   "I didn't even know until after the second practice was over that they didn't do any race runs," Stewart said. "They're either going to look like geniuses doing it or not."
   A mark of this year's playoffs has been Stewart's gamesmanship. He, lightheartedly, has jabbed repeated at Edwards, saying Thursday 'I'd run over my mother to win a championship. Heck, I'd run over YOUR mother to win a championship."
   Qualifying? "Our first two races that we won in the chase, we started 26th and 20th ," Stewart pointed out.
   "It would be nice to start on the front row; but we have proven time and time again….
    "I have 13 poles in 13 years, and we have won 42 races now.
    " We have proven that you do not have to do it from the pole. It is a luxury at this point.
    "Don't start etching his name on the trophy yet.
    "He put up a fast lap…but his lap times fell off pretty hard in the one long run he did. That is why I am still really confident; our times do not fall off as hard as his."
    Stewart pointed to Kasey Kahne, the Phoenix winner (and soon to be a Hendrick 'teammate' with Stewart), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (another Hendrick driver) as "the two best cars." And Stewart pointed out those two are starting deep in the pack.
   With qualifying for the final race of the 10-month season out of the way, Stewart continued ribbing Edwards: "I was having fun talking with him. He's like an easy target. It's like bringing a knife to a gunfight in that battle."
   Of course Edwards is banking the old saw that he who laughs last laughs best….



     Team Ford captain Jack Roush: arch-rival Rick Hendrick, in the Chevy camp, has won the last five straight NASCAR championships....but even with Jimmie Johnson now finally out of the running, another Hendrick-Chevy man, Tony Stewart, stands between Roush and what would be his first Cup title since 2004. Winning of course would be soooo sweet. But how tough would it be to lose this title to Stewart? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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