Sunday evening, when the last checkered flag of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has fallen and all the points have been counted, the championship trophy will either be in the clutches of Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart.
Whichever the way the title fight goes - and with only a three-point margin separating the two, it could certainly go either way - there is no doubt that fans will have a "people's champion" representing their sport in 2012.
And that isn't to say that five-time defending series champ Jimmie Johnson hasn't been a people's champion. Once his reign hit three titles, then four, then five, however, things became monotonous and turned a lot of fans off from the polite Californian. As off-based as the "vanilla" label put on Johnson is - if you don't believe that, simply follow him on Twitter - his success and the fact that you couldn't picture him punching someone out or challenging their ancestry if they ran him into the wall, thus making him "boring," seemed to leave the sport's fans, old and new, looking for an alternative.
Enter Edwards and Stewart, two very different people who would be two very different - but equally beneficial - champions.
Carl is one of the most engaging and funny drivers in racing. He always manages to pack some goofy remark into his TV interviews - often directed at himself - and most accounts depict him as very fan friendly in terms of attention and autographs. Heck, his victory celebrations consist of a back flip off the door of his car followed by a sprint into the grandstands to high five and hug fans who witnessed his triumph. It's hard to imagine anything being more people's championy than that.
Tony, meanwhile, is notoriously not the most fan-friendly driver around, at least at the race track. In fact, it could be argued that once the two-time Cup champ switches to "race mode" the minute the track opens for the weekend, he isn't anyone-friendly. Still, Stewart is one of the sport's most popular drivers ever for his on-track tenacity, his biting wit, and his big heart away from the track. Plus, he would take the Cup title on tour with him. Stewart still runs a number of dirt races across small-town America, where die-hard fans who perhaps don't have the budget to watch him race in person on Sunday can see a master at his craft in late models and sprint cars. As Kyle Petty said when Stewart won his first title in 2002, some drivers take the championship to the boardroom, while Tony takes it to Des Moines.
For Edwards, it would be a landmark title that would see him join Bobby Labonte as the only driver as a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series champion. For Stewart, it would be his third and just the latest championship on one of the most versatile resumes in the sport's history.
Either way, fans are sure to get their money's worth out of the new champ. While Johnson has been a great champion and took the sport new places with his success over the last five years, the breath of fresh air that Edwards or Stewart will bring back to the sport makes Sunday's finale one of the most-anticipated conclusions to a season in recent memory.