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Saturday, November 19, 2011
Edge to Edwards? That's how JJ sees it

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- You know how, to top off the analysis and forecasting of a championship game, ESPN always brings in the most successful coach who has just fallen out of the running?

Well, what with Nick Saban perhaps still in the hunt -- and frankly, we just weren't sure the Alabama coach has thoroughly researched NASCAR's season finale and title tilt -- we'll go with the most educated guesser available.

Jimmie Johnson has fallen short this time, but won the past five Sprint Cups. So we figure he is best qualified to prognosticate in this matter of Carl Edwards versus Tony Stewart in Sunday's Ford 400 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).

"Coming here [to Homestead-Miami Speedway], I think Carl has a bit of the upper hand, just based on past history," Johnson said, referring to Edwards' two wins in the past three races here … and to five other wins here by Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing teammates."

But Johnson kicked in with balance so quickly, you figured he's been watching Urban Meyer.

"I think Tony's chances are very strong, especially on how they have been running on the larger tracks." That is, two of Stewart's four wins in this Chase have come on 1.5-mile tracks similar to the one here.

"But I think I put a little bit of weight in past history at this racetrack."

That was analysis with the head, but then came analysis with the heart, as a Southeastern Conference coach would smile more on a member of the family in the title showdown.

"Both of them would be fantastic champions, but I guess I am leaning a little bit more towards Tony with the association with Hendrick Motorsports [Stewart-Haas Racing is a de facto satellite of HMS], and I want to see a Chevy win the championship."

But it's not as if Chevrolet is starved for a Cup. The manufacturer's teams have won the past six titles here (heck, even the SEC has won only five straight BCS games], back to Stewart's last championship, in 2005, when his Joe Gibbs Racing team was Chevy-powered.

Ford hasn't won the championship here since Kurt Busch, in the inaugural Chase in 2004 … this to the discomfort of the title sponsor of the Ford 400.

A football analogy is appropriate here because South Florida has always been a fantastic area for Orange Bowls and Super Bowls … but not so receptive to NASCAR championships.

As usual, Sunday's race is not a sellout. But it hardly matters, because the set is superb for studio racing -- palm trees along the backstretch make for nice television shots.

Much of NASCAR's rationale for running the finale here has been the weather, but that could backfire this time. It's been rainy all weekend, and the forecast for Sunday is for scattered showers, a 30 percent chance of rain.

Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards has been all smiles at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The track has lights, so the race could be run piecemeal, late into Sunday evening. But fans in the stands and in their living rooms would likely howl about running a championship race in fits and starts amidst intermittent showers.

The thought here is, a rain-interrupted race would be highly dramatic, with suspense left hanging every time the tarps went on the cars.

Because Edwards leads Stewart by only three points -- the difference between first and second place in Sunday's race -- hopes are high that there'll be no cruising around by one or the other in the finale, as has happened so many times in NASCAR's past.

"I'm kind of taking it for granted that we're going to be up there fighting for the lead," Edwards said. "But we've been able to do that almost every year at Homestead.

"And I feel that this year those guys [Stewart's team] are as tough as they've ever been on a mile-and-a-half."

And so, Edwards added, "I think it truly could come down to one of us is going to have to win this race."

If Stewart is the one to win it, game over, he happily observed. If the two end up tied in points, Stewart wins the championship on the first tiebreaker: number of races won this season. Stewart has four, Edwards but one so far.

"If we can go out and win the race, we don't even have to lead the most laps [for a bonus point] this time," Stewart pointed out. "We don't have to rely on where he is or what he does.

"And that's an awesome position to be in."

Then again, "I know what it takes to win here," Edwards said. "This is one race for us, and it could not be at a better racetrack. For me, if this were Martinsville [where Stewart won his third race of the Chase, but where Edwards has never done very well], I'd be a little nervous.

"But it's not. This is Homestead.

"That's why I feel that we're going into this in the best possible position we could be in."

So here it is: Two drivers, both in absolutely peachy creamy perfect position, to hear each tell it.

But the guy who understands these situations better than anyone -- actually better than Stewart and Edwards put together -- gives the nod to Edwards.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.