Stewart sets up knockout punch
Stewart raced to his second consecutive victory, and won for the fourth time in eight NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup races, finishing just ahead of points leader Carl Edwards in the so-called “Texas Title Fight” that fully lived up to its billing Sunday.
“I’m pretty sure what we did on the race track said everything we needed to tell him today. I don’t know how you top that,” Stewart said. “The funny thing, I don’t feel like I have to say anything. I feel like I’ve already got it done.”
After winning last week at Martinsville, Stewart got out of his car in Victory Lane and said Edwards “better be worried. That’s all I’m saying.”
Now it appears to be a two-driver fight for the championship with two races left after they finished 1-2 at the 1½-mile, high-banked Texas track.
Stewart has his focus set on winning a third Cup championship, and becoming the first person not named Jimmie Johnson to win the title since 2005—when Stewart won while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing before becoming a driver-owner.
“I mean we are set on it, man,” Stewart said. “This is just the way it’s going to be.”
Stewart cut his points deficit from eight to three with an average speed of 152.705 mph, the fastest Cup race at Texas, and a 1.092-second margin over Edwards, the Roush Fenway driver going for his first championship.
“He’s calmed down a little bit this week. It didn’t slow him down any,” said Edwards, the points leader for the fifth straight week. “I hope this roll doesn’t last much longer, otherwise this is going to be really tough.”
The series returns next week to Phoenix, where the track has been reconfigured and resurfaced since Stewart was seventh and Edwards 28th there in February in the second race this season, and then to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the finale. Edwards won both races at the end of last season.
Stewart led seven times for a race-high 173 of 334 laps, and more importantly stayed ahead of Edwards down the stretch.
On a restart with 60 laps to go after the second caution in a matter of laps, Edwards was the leader and on the inside of Stewart.
Coming out of Turn 2, Stewart shot by onto the backstretch and charged back to the lead.
“He timed it just right,” said Edwards, who led three times for 14 laps.
Stewart stayed in front until both made their final stops with 31 laps left. Though they dropped out of the 1-2 spots on the track during the cycle of green-flag stops, more importantly for Stewart was that he stayed ahead of Edwards.
The last lead change came with five laps left when Jeff Burton, who was trying to match Edwards as a three-time Cup winner at Texas, ran out of fuel. Burton had been the only car not to make a late stop, and was trying to stretch his last tank to the end.
During the first of those two cautions in a span of only six laps, Edwards had taken his first lead in more than 150 laps when he got only two tires and jumped from third to first out of the pits. Stewart also took only two tires on that stop, but came out second.
When Stewart came down pit road after the race, Edwards stuck his head in and shared a few words with his closest competitor.
“I just told him, ‘Good job.’ He did a great job today. Those guys stepped it up,” Edwards said. “I’m proud of my guys for hanging on and still having the points lead. It looks like it’s truly going to come down to Tony and I, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Kyle Busch was officially eliminated from championship contention, unable to gain any points while watching his No. 18 Toyota going around the track from atop the pit box. He’s 100 points back with two races left.
Michael McDowell drove the Joe Gibbs-owned car and finished 33rd, three laps behind the leaders.
Busch was parked by NASCAR—a rarely used penalty he couldn’t appeal—for the Cup and Nationwide races after deliberating wrecking championship contender Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series race Friday night. Busch issued an apology Saturday night and said he understood why he was penalized.
Five-time champion Johnson moved closer to the end of his unprecedented championship run when he finished 14th. He remained sixth in points, 55 back.
Stewart and Edwards were greeted at Texas with lockers complete with boxing gloves and robes, a tale of the tape and banners declaring a “Texas Title Fight” matching Cousin Carl vs. Smoke. Another banner hung near Victory lane featuring boxing promoter Don King and TMS president Eddie Gossage.
When Edwards and Stewart were announced at the end of driver introductions, when Chase contenders were presented in order of the standings, there also was the sound of a ringside bell.