Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards conspired to set up a thrilling end to the 2011 Sprint Cup Chase battle, finishing 1-2 in the AAA Texas 500 to close the gap between them at the top of the standings to just three points.
Stewart had laid down a verbal challenge to Edwards after winning at Martinsville last week, but few expected him to deliver on his words quite so quickly or emphatically as he did at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon, a track that had traditionally been one of Edwards' strongest.
"I told you guys that last week! Nobody listens to me when I talk anymore," said Stewart in victory lane. "We are set on it man, this is just the way it is going to be!"
Polesitter Greg Biffle had led the first 23 laps of the race, but then Matt Kenseth took over and dominated the next 88 laps with the exception of some green flag pit stop sequences, right up until the first caution of the afternoon (for debris) on lap 111 - setting a new record for the most consecutive laps under green at the start of a race at Texas.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards had never been very far back from the lead, and at the restart Stewart saw his chance to go side-by-side with Kenseth and claim the lead for himself. Edwards, however, wasn't able to match their pace and started sinking back down the top ten, struggling with the car's loose handling as crew chief Bob Osborne confirmed that the #99 simply had too much camber in the right-front tyre during this stint.
After the cars had gone through a another sequence of green flag pit stops - Stewart only briefly losing the lead as the stops cycled through - a second caution came out on lap 201 as Geoffrey Bodine got encouraged into a spin by contact with Juan Montoya and Brian Vickers. Kasey Kahne had been on pit road when the caution came out and as a result led the restart, and even though Stewart blasted away and immediately resumed the top spot Kahne was nonetheless able to stay with him, and parlayed his good fortune into a strong race position for the rest of the afternoon.
Stewart was still leading Kahne when a caution came out on lap 240 for a spin by Jimmie Johnson sending the #48 sliding through the infield grass coming off turn 4. "Just a loose car," explained Johnson. "I fought a loose race car all night long ... I think sliding through the grass did some damage underneath," he continued. "It may have been the rear end or something, because it didn't really drive really good after that. We were loose, but fast beforehand and then after the spin, that really hurt the car." He would eventually recover to finish 14th.
Stewart and Kahne formed up the front row again at the restart and continued to run one-two until the fourth caution of the afternoon triggered by Joey Logano's engine blowing up, and this time Edwards - much happier now with the #99's handling - was able to beat Stewart off pit road and keep the lead at the restart after Stewart had a poor getaway. Unfortunately for Edwards it proved to be a short-lived green before another debris caution, and at the next restart on lap 275 Stewart was able to blast past Edwards for the lead. No one, it seemed, was able the match the #14 for raw speed today.
"On that last restart, I think if I could have stayed in front of him, I'd have been able to get him," said Edwards after the race. "The restart before that he spun his tyres and I felt really good about that one, [but] he timed it just right on that last restart and hung on my door."
Now the issue was fuel and when to come in for their final scheduled pit stops. Stewart, Edwards and Kahne came in for theirs on lap 302; a few hardy souls pushed it to lap 308, but only Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman tried the seemingly impossible gambit of running to the end without any pit stop at all. They duly traded the lead over the next 20 laps while also trying to save as much fuel as possible; but when no further cautions appeared it was clear that the gambit was a bust. Newman pitted for fuel ten laps shy of the end, and Burton ran dry five laps later.
That handed the lead back to Stewart with less than five laps remaining to the end. Stewart had a lead of over a second over Edwards, who was in turn comfortably ahead of Kahne, Kenseth, Biffle and Jeff Gordon, and they duly made up the top six at the chequered flag.
It was Tony Stewart's 43rd career victory in his 462nd Cup race, and his second win at Texas in 20 visits. Stewart's four wins in 2011 have all come in the Chase, which ties Jimmie Johnson's record for most wins in a single Chase campaign as well as tying Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch for the most wins of 2011. He also added the bonus point for most laps led at Texas, 173 out of the full race distance of 334.
"I don't think we have to say anything, I think our performance today spoke for itself," said Stewart. He added that he felt that "if I could get the restart on him [Edwards] and get ahead of him, I thought we could stay there. That was the difference and the guys had an awesome pit-stop at the end. If they would not have had that pit-stop we would not be here."
Edwards was also more than happy with his own second place. "I'm proud of our cars for turning what looked like was gonna be a bad night overall, or a disaster really in the points, to something that is real manageable and something we can move forward with," said Edwards. "Obviously, we definitely wanted to beat Tony tonight and pad that lead a little bit, but at the end of the day we can walk out of here with our heads up."
It was a poor day for Joe Gibbs Racing, however. None of the team's three cars seemed to have much pace and didn't feature toward the front all afternoon, even before Logano's engine blew up on lap 262. Michael McDowell - substituting in the #18 for Kyle Busch who was parked from the race
by NASCAR following an on-track clash with Ron Hornaday
in the Camping World Truck Series race on Friday night - could only manage 31st after starting from the rear of the field because of the driver change, and then struggling with the handling of the car.
"Just a tough day for us. We were hoping for more, but for me it was just great," said McDowell, who is usually one of the "start and park" drivers in his usual #66 entry. "I was planning on doing 20 laps this week, so I think I did 310 more than I was planning on.
"My ability is not going to change overnight. You get into a car. You haven't worked with the crew chief ... " But he added that the weekend had been a "great opportunity to work with a great team and just see how they do things a little bit different."
The third JGR team member, Denny Hamlin, was hit by Brad Keselowski on pit road on lap 271 when the #2 tried reversing out of its pit box after being blocked in ahead by Ryan Newman. Keselowski took the blame for the collision, which left him with bodywork damage - "It was my fault, 100 percent", he admitted - but emphasised that it had started with Newman, "who didn't even try to get into his pit stall and made every effort he could to block us in."
Saying that Newman was acting on team orders, Keselowski continued: "He deserves his ass kicked for that. Lost all respect from me. I lost my cool accordingly, and forgot about [Hamlin] behind and backed into him. It hurts our shot [at the Sprint Cup title.]"
Keselowski dropped to 49pts off Edwards in the Chase standings, while Hamlin eventually finished in 20th position. Along with Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, Hamlin is almost a hundred points off the points leader and is now mathematically eliminated from title contention following this weekend's race.
However it couldn't be closer at the top of the Chase standings, with just three points - the equivalent of just three places in a single race - separating leader Edwards from Stewart. One slip for either driver and everything could change; but for the moment, it couldn't be pitched better for a thrilling finish to the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
"It does not take much right now, it is one spot if a guy wins the race [to claim bonus points.] We are doing exactly what we need to do, I am really confident right now," said Stewart. "If you can do simple math, you can figure out that we gained over half of it in one week and we have two weeks to go."
"Man, we're gonna hold Tony to it," said Edwards. "They're gonna have to run that well to beat us these next two races and I think, really, it's gonna be a great battle. I'm really excited about it ... We're still the points leaders and the third and fourth guys, I'm not sure how far back they are, but we had to open up a little bit of space on them, which is good," he added.
Kevin Harvick is in third place after a two-tyre gamble in the last round of pit stops saw him slump to 13th at Texas, putting he's 33pts back from the lead - meaning that he basically requires both Stewart and Edwards to each crash out early in one or both of the two remaining races at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to cut the gap. Matt Kenseth is 38pts back ahead of Keselowski (who is 49pts off Edwards), Jimmie Johnson (55pts back), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (79pts), Jeff Gordon (81pts) and Kurt Busch (87pts). Full race results
are available.Full championship points