Stewart, Edwards have everyone else playing catch up
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The rivalry is not over yet.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards finished in a dead heat last year, and Stewart took the Sprint Cup championship on a tiebreaker, four wins to one.
It was about the only way to separate Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet and Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, the fastest cars in NASCAR in 2011.
After two weeks in Florida, they still are not separated by much.
Edwards is on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Stewart was second in the Bud Shootout last weekend and won one of the Gatorade Duels on Thursday.
The rivalry is not over.
“I kind of thought that, too, after we ran second the other night and then Carl got the pole,” Stewart said. “I thought, ‘Man, we’re both picking up right where we left off.’”
Where they left off was the finish of the best duel in the eight years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Edwards went into the 10-race “playoffs” as the co-leader. Then Stewart busted out by winning the first two events, his first two wins of the season.
Edwards didn’t shrink. He never finished worse than 11th in any of the Chase races, logged seven top-5s and closed with three second-place finishes.
But Stewart won three of the last four races – at Martinsville, Fort Worth and finally, Homestead-Miami – to make up the last of the ever-shrinking point deficit. He ended up winning five of the 10 Chase races.
It took that kind of finish to catch Edwards.
Three months later, they’re both still shaking their heads about it.
“We tied a guy who won half the races,” Edwards said. “I venture to say if we would have been able to win half of those races, we would have just dominated the thing.”
Stewart loved the feeling. He’ll take another year of neck-and-neck races with Edwards.
He bets NASCAR would, too.
“It would be great to start the year off like we finished it last year, to have a run like that,” he said. “But it’ll only be good for NASCAR if both of us can run that strong against each other and be head-to-head each week. I don’t think one or the other of us just running off and having a great run the first 10 races is going to be a good deal.”
The potential is there for both of them to run off.
Stewart is in a comfort zone, with a new crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, with whom he has worked before. Edwards drives for one of the richest owners in the series, Jack Roush, and his power-packed engines.
“I think we are still chasing them,” said Hendricks Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson, whose five-year reign as Sprint Cup champion ended with Stewart’s victory last year. “But in my opinion, it is not due to what has gone on in Speedweeks. It is the way they closed out last year.”
Edwards didn’t set out to win the pole, necessarily. But when he turned the fastest qualifying lap in 23 years at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, it made his heart swell.
“Our whole team looks at last year with a lot of pride,” Edwards said. “We did a very good job and the best we could, and the true test for us will be to go to work and not hang our heads, but to be motivated by that.
“It feels like this pole proves that our whole team went back and worked hard and people didn’t complain and whine and make excuses. They got to work, and this is the best we have ever come to the Daytona 500 since I have been here.”
Stewart, too, believes he has proved something this week. To himself. To Edwards. To anyone watching.
“It’s good momentum, but no guarantee, obviously,” he said. “It’s a long race on Sunday, and a lot can happen. I think we showed the rest of the field we’ve got good speed, so that’s a strong point.”
For Edwards, last year will officially be in the rearview mirror after Sunday’s race. He and Stewart and the rest of the series will head to Phoenix, and then Las Vegas. By April, they’ll be in Fort Worth.
But Edwards allowed himself one more thought about that 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“We didn’t lose it,” he said. “We went out, raced hard, did well. And they came in and beat us.”