Chase reaches fever pitch at Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Carl Edwards entered the media center late Sunday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway and took a seat a few feet from Tony Stewart with only a black chair separating them.

"If you want, we can eliminate the chair," joked Stewart as Edwards slid even closer to the two-time Sprint Cup champion.

Quipped Edwards, "We're good."

These two have been that close on the track for most of the past three weeks. They will be that close heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Stewart behind Edwards by a mere three points with all the marbles on the line.

With apologies to Kasey Kahne and soon-to-be-defunct Red Bull Racing for not dedicating this space to their victory, this day was all about what has become the best Chase ever, perhaps the best championship battle in NASCAR history.

Best is a word that often gets overused, but it fits in this case. Aside from the points spread being the third tightest in the history of the sport -- bettered only by the non-Chase 1979 and 1990 seasons -- what makes this so spectacular is Edwards and Stewart are at the top of their game.

They finished second and third on Sunday, with Stewart leading the most laps to end the ninth round of this 10-round heavyweight fight in a draw. They finished first and second the previous week at Texas with Stewart leading the most laps again, and they were first and ninth a week earlier at Martinsville with Stewart winning.

This has been epic, like Richard Petty versus David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt versus Jeff Gordon.

You can almost see, as Edwards keeps insisting it will, them making the final lap at Homestead with the win and the championship on the line. Even Kahne, who has had a bird's-eye view of this with the best average finish in the Chase after Edwards and Stewart, says it's too close to call.

"It's been fun to watch from my standpoint," said Kahne, who has an average finish of 8.0 the past nine weeks. "I raced with them, right behind them. To be able to beat them today feels pretty good.

"They've put on a great show. Carl has been really consistent and really fast all season long. Tony's stepped up like no other in the Chase. It's pretty impressive what those two guys have done. It's going to be the same way at Homestead. I feel like it's going to go right to the end of that race before we know who is going to be the champion."

For much of Sunday it appeared this race would come down to Edwards and Stewart for the win. Stewart led 160 laps and had the dominant car until an adjustment got him a little off balance on his next-to-last stop. Edwards led 27 laps and held the lead, with Stewart second, before making his final pit stop with 24 laps to go.

"I'm keeping him honest," Stewart said of Edwards.

They both are.

It just doesn't get any better than this.

That it comes down to a track where both have excelled -- Edwards, in particular, winning two of the past three in South Florida -- makes this Super Bowl, Final Four and Game 7 material.

Neither is uptight about it, either. Edwards, when asked if there's a better track than Homestead for him to attempt to clinch his first Cup title, said, "There's some dirt tracks I grew up that would be fine with me."

Responded Stewart, "I'm all for changing it to dirt."

When Carl suggested a track in South Florida, Stewart said, "I've got one in Ohio we can use. I've got one in Kentucky we can use. I've got one in Illinois. That's all I've got."

If the two put on a show at Homestead as good as the one they did in the media center, it will come down to the final lap. This has a feel unlike any other Chase because nobody is backing into title contention or giving it away as Denny Hamlin did a year ago when poor fuel mileage at Phoenix ended a dominating performance and spoiled a seemingly insurmountable 33-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, by the way, officially has been eliminated from a chance to win a sixth straight title. Everybody else who started this 12-driver playoff has been eliminated as well.

Except Edwards and Stewart, of course.

"You couldn't ask for anything more," Edwards said.

"It's an awesome championship battle," Stewart said.

That the newly resurfaced and reconfigured track at Phoenix didn't turn this into a wreck-fest was a plus.

This simply is two drivers doing their thing to the best of their ability.

"It's pretty neat," Edwards said. "Seems like subconsciously we're both able to dig down and our teams are able to give us what we need, and everybody has been performing at a high level. It's been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us."

Stewart smiled and nodded an affirmative.

It's pretty neat. Seems like subconsciously we're both able to dig down and our teams are able to give us what we need, and everybody has been performing at a high level. It's been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us.

-- Carl Edwards

"To race Carl for the lead in races, for the points championship, that's going to mean something at the end of the year," he said. "That's going to add to whoever wins this.

"We both had to fight and fight and fight to get every point we can to get up to this point. I feel like I'm working towards something, and I feel like if we accomplish this, we have worked for it, not had it handed to us. That's all you can ask for as a driver, is to be in that position."

NASCAR finally has gotten the Chase it dreamed about when this system was announced for the 2004 season. There's no BCS formula or computers to muddle things up.

It's all being decided on the track between the top two teams.

We can only hope the finale lives up to what has been established, and the title isn't decided by a mistake like it was in '79 when Darrell Waltrip pitted on the wrong side of the scoring line in the final race to blow a two-point lead over Richard Petty.

"I know for us I can say completely, truthfully this is the best Chase we've ever had," said Edwards, who has finished second twice. "We haven't gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we've performed better than we ever have.

"If they're beating us, they're beating us at our best, and I think that's pretty neat."

That's why Edwards was able to sit so close to Stewart. A year ago, Johnson stood outside and waited for Hamlin to finish his postrace news conference because he wanted to stay in his own world and not be distracted.

The worlds of Edwards and Stewart are too close to separate. They understand it doesn't matter what either says or does in a media center.

"I understand what all this stuff is," Edwards said. "I understand that we come up here and we answer questions and that's part of our sport. But when it comes down to racing, both of us know we've got to go race each other."

As it should be.

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