Thursday, November 17, 2011

Great championship battle reaches climax

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have battled as close as any two drivers can battle during the Chase, and that could make Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway a memorable one.

Sure, the final race of the year is always a big one. The champion is crowned, several drivers are in their last race with their current teams and it is the last time we’ll see racing again until February.

But often people tend to forget the final race of the season at least as quickly as other races, if not more so.

The fun of the offseason kicks in quickly as the final drivers find their ride for the next year and any other news that tends to drop out of the NASCAR sky. For example, Hendrick Motorsports switched three of its crew chiefs just two days after Jimmie Johnson won his fifth title in a row.

However, this year’s final race could be one that is remembered right along with the 1992 race at Atlanta where Alan Kulwicki won the championship and the 2004 race at Homestead where Kurt Busch survived a tire falling off to still win the closest Chase battle ever.

Good races with intriguing storylines, no matter where they fall on the schedule, have a longer life in a race fan’s mind than another bland championship coronation in the Nationwide Series this year and the not-so-close finishes in five of the first seven years of the Chase.

Yes, other drivers have been mathematically in contention at Homestead, but Stewart had a 52-point lead heading into the last race of his 2005 championship season, and Johnson had a lead of at least 63 points in his first four championship seasons.

Even last year’s race felt like a formality before Johnson raised the trophy after Denny Hamlin wrecked early in the race and effectively ended any chance he had of maintaining the 15-point lead he had entering the race.

But not this year. Edwards and Stewart have both been the two best drivers the last two weeks, and they have been able to put on a show where for once it is OK to forget about the rest of the field. The way these two guys are running, it would probably be an entertaining race if they were the only two cars on the track.

Hopefully the championship contenders qualify close to each other and run up at the front of the field for the balance of the race. This has the chance to be one of the most intense battles the sport has seen in years.

But, that doesn’t mean there will be fender-rubbing and fights after the race. Fans would probably get a kick out of that type of situation, but this race will more likely be a clean, close race that will keep fans chewing on their fingernails until the final laps.

These are two aggressive drivers, and they have as much incentive as any to give everything they have to win Sunday’s race. That’s not to say they haven’t been giving their all. Their battle two-thirds of the way through the race at Phoenix was fantastic.

If they race like that again this week, maybe everyone will remember the final race of the season.

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