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Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth hunky-dory

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, the top two drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, get along fine these days. That's important when you're battling for the championship, particularly at a track like Martinsville Speedway, where tempers have been known to flare.

But it hasn't always been that way.

There was a time four years ago when the Roush Fenway Racing teammates left this half-mile track in the Virginia foothills, the site of Sunday's seventh race in the 10-race Chase, on not-so-good terms.

OK, it got ugly.

Kenseth was in the middle of a television interview near the Turn 4 wall when Edwards walked over, pushed his teammate far enough back that the two temporarily escaped the camera's view and got into a heated, profanity-laced exchange with the 2003 Cup champion.

It ended with Edwards, mad about the way Kenseth "pile-drived me so hard in the rear that I barely saved it," throwing a fake punch.

Afterward, Kenseth said, "I've got a problem with Carl, and I'm glad people finally got to see that side of him in the video. Until he proves he's changed with his actions, I don't want to deal with him."

Yes, there was a history between the two before they got to Martinsville that day. They truly didn't care for each other.

But Kenseth and Edwards have long put their differences aside and moved on with their racing careers. You could call them good friends.

Now they're having to deal with each other in a different way -- competing to become the heir to the throne that Jimmie Johnson has occupied the past five years. Edwards leads Kenseth by 14 points.

"If it stays one and two down the stretch, there'll be a big fight at Homestead," Kenseth jokingly said of the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And who would win?

"Who do you think?" Kenseth asked with a smile.

Seriously, it's a fine balance being teammates in this scenario. We saw it on this half-mile track in the spring of 2007 when Johnson and Jeff Gordon got into a sheet-metal exchange for nearly 20 laps before Johnson prevailed.

"I think he knew I was his teammate, and he used that up," Gordon said at the time. "I pushed and shoved and did just about everything I possibly could. I'm a little more surprised the way he raced me. We, as teammates, we usually give a little bit more room than that.

"But I know going forward how we're going to race."

Gordon and Johnson let their emotions get the best of them to the point last season they got a lecture from team owner Rick Hendrick.

That's what Edwards and Kenseth need to avoid. They've got enough on their plates trying to get past a Martinsville track that hasn't been kind to either and stay in position to win the title.

"That's a tough situation to be in," said Kevin Harvick, who is 26 points out in fifth place. "Obviously, there is a lot at stake with winning the championship. You saw a little bit of controversy within that whole [RFR] camp last week as to how they raced, how they were told to race.

"So it'll be interesting to see how they tell them to race each other for the championship."

If it stays this close, there's a chance the breaks Edwards and Kenseth may have given each other prior to now will diminish, with each driver understanding how valuable each position, each bonus point, will be.

"I just don't know if they'll be able to count on each other too much down the stretch," said Denny Hamlin, last year's runner-up.

Kenseth doesn't know exactly how things will play out between him and Edwards, but he doesn't expect anything dramatic like what happened here in October 2007. If anything, that situation helped them become better teammates.

"Yeah, I think our relationship has changed a lot through the years," Kenseth said. "We have a much better understanding of each other's personalities and how we look at things. I don't really know exactly what triggered that back when it started. Obviously, we've never spun each other out ... "

As much as we share and as good as a relationship as we have, we are competitors and we want to beat that 17 team just as bad as anybody else. But we're not to the point in the season yet where we can really divide and go race one another. We can still gain more by helping one another now and trying to succeed based on that help.

-- Carl Edwards

Kenseth paused, recalling that Edwards spun him out in the second Chase race at New Hampshire, where Kenseth rallied to finish sixth.

"Things have been good," Kenseth continued. "We get along fine. He's certainly been a good teammate and brings a lot to the table for the organization."

Edwards doesn't expect things to change, either. He plans to use what Kenseth learned finishing sixth here in the spring to help him on a track where his average finish is 16.9 (he finished 23rd the last time out).

Edwards believes if he and Kenseth keep working together it will be better for both of them in the end.

"As much as we share and as good as a relationship as we have, we are competitors and we want to beat that 17 team just as bad as anybody else," Edwards said. "But we're not to the point in the season yet where we can really divide and go race one another.

"We can still gain more by helping one another now and trying to succeed based on that help."

Kenseth could use the help at Martinsville as well. Despite a solid run in the spring, his average finish here is 15.8.

"So right now we're working as a team," Edwards said. "Even this weekend, if we can help each other all the way up to the race, I think it's better for both of us."

Still, it's not easy when teammates are racing for the title. Johnson went through it in 2009 when he battled Mark Martin and Gordon for the top three spots. He went through it in 2007 when he edged Gordon for the title.

"As time goes on it gets more and more difficult to have great team spirit and you have to be that teammate," said Johnson, all but out of contention 50 points behind. "Jeff and I and even Mark Martin, for that matter, have handled it as good as you possibly can and kept the open notebook situation going and [being] respectful on the track.

"But it is a weird scenario where you have the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other."

Fortunately for Edwards and Kenseth, they've come a long way from when there was a devil on each shoulder. They've grown to respect each other on the track and off to the point they can joke about that moment four years ago.

"First of all, I'm glad he just cocked it and didn't fire it because that would have hurt," Kenseth said of the fake punch, smiling. "I saw the still photos of that the other day and I might still be laying out there somewhere."

Yes, these two have come a long way.

It could help one of them win a title.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.