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Carl Edwards vs. Tony Stewart: Round 9

11/12/2011 - NASCAR

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart admittedly don't hang out with each other at the track or away from it even though both apparently like and respect each other.

Stewart is single and a two-time Sprint Cup champion. He likes to drink Schlitz beer; eat at Dairy Queen; play pool; fish on his farm in Columbus, Ind.; compete on dirt tracks whenever he has a free moment; and he owns a Sprint Cup organization.

Edwards is married to a doctor and looking for his first Cup title. He doesn't drink. He spends most of his time in Columbia, Mo., with his wife and two kids; takes bicycle rides through exotic places such as Vietnam; and arguably is the polar opposite of Stewart when it comes to fitness. He has absolutely no interest in NASCAR ownership.

But barring some major catastrophe Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), the championship will come down to one of these drivers separated by three points.

Picking one is almost as impossible as finding similarities between them beyond racing.

Edwards has shown to be the most consistent of the season, leading the points standings 22 weeks and recording a series-best 17 top-5s and 24 top-10s. Stewart has been the most spectacular in the Chase, winning four of the first eight races, including the past two, but he has only seven top-5s and 17 top-10s on the season.

Each says he has control of this 10-race playoff, and each says so with a zest that makes you believe him. Each also appears to be having fun, something you couldn't say a year ago, when Denny Hamlin appeared ready to jump out of his skin with two races remaining and Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick hot on his heels.

It truly could come down to the last lap of next week's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, just as Edwards insists will happen.

"I have seen a lot of points battles and been part of a few and seen a lot of things happen in the sport," Edwards said. "I am telling you, there is something to me that I feel this thing is not going to be over until the last lap.

"I just have a feeling about this one for some reason."

It's hard not to. Each driver is comfortable with his strategy. Each driver has enough experience to know what it takes to win a title, although Stewart has a 2-0 edge over Edwards, twice a runner-up.

Stewart says his experience gives him an edge, but he won't share specifics. Edwards says his strategy gives him an edge, but he won't get specific on what he plans to do.

"I am not going to tell you how I am going to drive," Edwards said. "I am going to keep that close to my vest, but I do have a pretty good plan. I know what we are going to go do and I feel pretty good about it.

"I do believe that barring some circumstance, which can happen in racing to anyone, if we run the way that we plan on running here for the next two weeks, I believe that if they want to beat us they are going to have to win a race or two. They are going to have to step it up like they have been."

There are little mind games going on here, although they probably won't work the way Johnson and Harvick seemed to get to Hamlin a year ago. It was almost as if Stewart was sandbagging in Friday's final practice when his fastest lap was 36th best but his 10-lap average was third.

Edwards, by the way, posted the second-fastest lap and talked like he'd found speed that seemingly has been missing in recent weeks.

Back and forth they go, like heavyweight contenders.

"I feel like we are, to be honest," Stewart said when asked who is in control. "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.

"I think we've responded to that with our actions on the racetrack and what we've done."

Many drivers believe Stewart is the driver to beat. Just as many seemingly like Edwards' chances.

Edwards certainly isn't intimidated by Stewart's wins. If anything, the fact that he's in the points lead without a victory in the Chase, with only one win all season, speaks volumes.

"We don't have trophies lined up, but the recoveries we have made and consistency we have shown and the ability to come back from really tough days, I wouldn't have been able to do it a year or two years ago," Edwards said. "At the end of the day we are still leading the points.

"They have to overtake us and beat us."

He's right. As brilliant as Stewart has been for much of the Chase, he still trails.

And don't forget the final two races are at Phoenix and Homestead. Edwards won this time a year ago at PIR, and he has won two of three and has an average finish of 5.7 at HMS.

Stewart has finished 17th or worse in four of the past six at Phoenix and hasn't finished better than eighth at Homestead since 2004.

Not that history makes a difference at the newly paved, newly reconfigured Phoenix racetrack. There is potential here for one or both to run into problems they never anticipated, such as getting stuck on the troublesome outside lane going into Turn 3 on a restart.

"That is going to be the million-dollar question there," Edwards said of the surface, which has yet to rubber in two full lanes.

Putting a million dollars on either driver would be a huge gamble at this point. The odds would have to be close to 50-50 that you'd lose.

Or win.

That's what makes this Chase arguably the best ever. It's impossible to pick a winner. It already has a World Series Game 6 kind of feel. If both drivers run like they did a week ago when they were 1-2 with Stewart in front, next week will have a Super Bowl feel.

The only thing that could make this better is if the two didn't like each other, which Edwards indicated was the case years ago. Now it's like a lovefest, although that could be a part of the strategy.

"For us, it is pretty neat to be holding off a two-time champ having the best Chase he has ever had," Edwards said. "It is neat to be battling with him. If we can continue and hold him off and win this thing, if it truly comes down to the end like I believe it will -- I truly believe it will come down to the last lap at Homestead -- that is going to feel good that it is Tony."

In other words, Edwards wants to beat Stewart, not hang out and drink Schlitz with him.
OK, he would hang out.

"I can go be his designated driver," Edwards said.

Of course he would. That would put him in control.

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