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Hot Stewart Takes Aim At Edwards, Top Spot At Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- The best way to describe Round 9 of NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship” is “Where there is Smoke, there is Fire.”

Two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart has blazed his way to within three points of Carl Edwards for the lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings entering Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Stewart, whose nickname is “Smoke,” has won four of the first eight races in the Chase and is attempting to win his third Cup title in his career.

Stewart, who won the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005 and 2007, won the Winston Cup title under the old season-long scoring system in 2002. He also won the Sprint Cup title using the current “Chase” system in 2005 and is the only driver to win Cup championships under both systems.

If he wins this year’s championship, he will become the first owner/driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the NASCAR Cup championship.

“It’s a cool opportunity,” said Stewart, from Columbus, Ind. “Chances like this don’t come around very often obviously because you don’t have a lot of drivers that are in ownership roles anymore in NASCAR. There’s a part of this that is very historic if it happens. It would be really cool especially since we have guys on our team that were a part of that championship with Alan. You realize the significance of it because of their involvement in it and what it meant to them.”

“I think at that part of my life I just looked at it from a driver’s standpoint and saw him winning a championship. I hadn’t been a part of any ownership side and really couldn’t put my arms around what when was doing from a driver/owner standpoint but when you get in this situation you realize it a lot more.”

When Stewart defeated Edwards last Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway, it was his second straight victory and narrowed the deficit to just three points. If Stewart can make it three in a row on Sunday, he can take over the Cup points lead heading into next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stewart believes he is controlling his own destiny in regards to the championship.

“I feel like we are, to be honest,” Stewart said. “I think we showed that last week. We’re not racing worrying about where they’re at and what they’re doing each day. We’re worrying about our car, what we’ve got to do to be fast, what we’ve got to do to win races and I think we’ve responded to that with our actions on the racetrack and what we’ve done. So I would like to say we are right now. We’ve been able to battle back from a couple of really bad races in this Chase to be where we are at.”

Stewart’s Chevrolet starts eighth right next to Carl Edwards’ Ford in Sunday’s race at the repaved, reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway 1-mile oval.

Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard 400 winner, is third in the Chase, 33 points behind Edwards. Harvick realizes that unless something drastic happens to both drivers ahead of him in the final two races, his chances of contending for the championship are slim.

But Harvick isn’t giving up.

“I wish we all knew how to gain the momentum and how you lose the momentum,” Harvick said. “Right now, the No. 14 car (Tony Stewart) has the momentum, and he has won his way into contention during the Chase. It’s really all about the guy who gets on the hot streak during the last 10 weeks and can complete that hot streak through the end of the season, and Tony has that right now.

"If you look at it, it just doesn’t even really seem possible that the No. 99 (Edwards) could even beat him with the momentum that Tony has right now. But this (Sunday’s race at PIR) could be a game-changer; in what direction, I don’t think anybody knows because we have no clue how it’s going to race. We know we can all drive around by ourselves and make good lap times and adjust on our cars and do the things that we need to do, but how hard will it be to pass when they drop the green flag and everybody’s on the racetrack? We don’t know. This could be interesting."

Three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson is 55 points out with just two races to go, but his streak of consecutive Cup titles will likely end at five straight this year.

“Where we are in the points, we’re over a race out, so we’re going to need a lot of help and it probably would involve help here and at Homestead,” Johnson said. “I’m not necessarily counting on that, but I’m an optimist and myself and this race team, we’re not ready or willing to give up. We’re going to try to win these next two races and still be in a position to win the championship if there are some big mistakes made. If not, it’s very important to me to finish as high as I can in the points. I have a thing going where I have been in the top five every year so far, and at a minimum I want to try to keep that alive, and I still need to get one more spot to do that. I guess I’m not really ready to reflect yet. When I’m mathematically eliminated, I’ll be willing to go down that road emotionally and talk about it. I’m still trying to keep some hope.”

Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is eighth in points but 81 out of the lead, which means he could be mathematically eliminated in Sunday’s race at Phoenix.

Gordon realizes the driver who will be honored at this year’s championship awards banquet in Las Vegas will either be Edwards or Stewart, but that will be much different than the past five years.

“My wife just thought it was the Jimmie Johnson event because ever since we’ve been married, he’s been the champion,” Gordon said. “I think it’s going to be unique and different for everybody to see somebody else up there on that stage. We’re seeing a heck of a battle for this championship right now, and it’s going to be exciting to watch the next couple of races.

"It’s hard for me because I didn’t win five in a row. I think it’s a little different when you win five in a row and then you have to adjust. There’s no doubt that I think that Jimmie is very appreciative and that whole team is of everything they have accomplished, but at the same time, I think it’s hard for you not to become accustomed to being the man at the banquet, which is a great place to be. You get treated like a king. As I mentioned, this will be a growing season for them and experiences that are either going to make them hungrier and stronger or could be that thing that stops them from continuing on. I think that they are the kind of team that is going to come back strong.”

***

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Hot Stewart Takes Aim At Edwards, Top Spot At Phoenix
 
Hot Stewart Takes Aim At Edwards, Top Spot At Phoenix
The best way to describe Round 9 of NASCAR's "Chase for the Championship" is "Where there is Smoke, there is Fire."
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