With three races left in Chase for the Cup, what's the key to winning the 2011 NASCAR championship?
"Simple math," said points leader Carl Edwards.
"In 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, lead the most laps, go hard on the restarts. I don't think you can go there and not do that and expect to win this championship. It's just too close and too many things can happen."
The No. 99 Roush Racing Ford driver goes into the final trio of races with a slim eight-point margin over a hard-charging Tony Stewart, who is looking for his third NASCAR title. Stewart moved into second spot courtesy of a win in the last race at Martinsville, Va.
With the third place man Kevin Harvick 21 points behind and Brad Keselowski a further seven adrift in fourth, the title fight is realistically an Edwards-Stewart showdown. Matt Kenseth lies 36 points behind in fifth while reigning five-time champ Jimmie Johnson is 43 points out in sixth. Drivers get 47 points for a win, plus a bonus point if they lead the most laps.
While it seems to be a two-man race, Edwards said that thinking Stewart is his only rival would be ill-advised.
"If you look at the points standings, there are five or six guys that I think have a very legitimate shot at winning this championship. I think it's still really up in the air," Edwards said.
"Tony and I could both have trouble at [this weekend's race in]Texas and the guys behind us could finish one through four, one through five. We could be forgotten a week from now. They will not be talking about us. That's just one week."
"I still think until we get down to [the final race at]Homestead, I don't think we can point to favourites. I hope I'm one of them. There's a lot that can still happen."
NASCAR doesn't see it that way, playing up the Edwards-Stewart showdown as things get serious. And Stewart helped things along by not using any sugar coating after his win in Martinsville last weekend.
"He [Edwards]better be worried, that's all I've got to say," Stewart said in Victory Lane at Martinsville after taking his third win in the first seven Chase races.
"He's not going to have an easy three weeks."
A maiden championship for Edwards would help erase the disappointment of two titles that slipped through his driving gloves in 2005 and 2008. The first near miss came in his first full season of Cup competition where he ended the year tied for second behind Stewart. Three seasons later he was runner-up again, this time to Johnson despite posting a season high nine wins and 27 top-10 finishes.
In between, Edwards won the title in NASCAR's second tier Nationwide Series in 2007.
Along the way, Edwards also showed a mean streak, getting into some vicious battles with rivals that often ended in masses of crumpled sheet metal. His battles with Keselowski over the past couple of seasons in Cup and Nationwide stand out, after the pair cut a swath of carnage in both series.
In the March race in Atlanta last season, Edwards ended up in the wall early in the race care of Keselowski. After returning to the track following repairs, Edwards intentionally spun his rival who flipped backwards into the catch fence. Miraculously, no one on track or in the stands was seriously hurt.
The feud boiled over again in the July Nationwide race at Gateway International Raceway, near St. Louis, which ended in a last lap, 11-car wreck.
But that kind of aggression likely won't rear its ugly head as Edwards looks for a title.
"I feel like I'm kind of crossing the threshold into becoming — I wouldn't call myself a veteran — but I'm learning all the different ways you can mess this thing up. I've lost a couple of these points battles — 2005 and 2008 — when I thought they were right there within our grasp and I messed it up," he said.
"I guess at the end of the day the thing that's keeping me calm through this, keeping me focused, is realizing that, number one, anything can happen and two, the only thing I can do is go do my very best. I have a great group of people around me not to get worked up, get ahead of myself, just go race this race car."
The good news for Edwards is that the Chase heads to tracks he likes in Texas and Phoenix for the next two stops prior to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Edwards has three career wins at Texas and took a win in last fall's race in Phoenix.
"When we go to these mile-and-a-half tracks, one of our [Roush Racing]cars has a chance to win. You show up, you know when you're sitting in the garage, during practice, you know if you're not on top of the sheet or the fastest car, there's something you can fix and make it better. That confidence is huge," he said.
"I think in a way, a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders in that we made it through the toughest races for us, now we have these tracks that everyone on the team is excited to go to."