The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is coming to a close this weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway after 35 races. While 43 cars will take the green flag Sunday for the season finale, all eyes will be on two drivers – and rightfully so.
Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart have emerged from their competitors, poised to settle the 2011 series title between themselves. With only three points separating the pair, the championship battle is shaping up to be a classic NASCAR title fight.
Three points. That's it.
That margin relates to 13 points under the old system, which is the closest margin going into the final race in Chase history, and the third-closest margin in the modern era.
What makes this title fight so compelling is how close Edwards and Stewart have been over the past few weeks. Unable to get away from each other on the track, the pair have battled for position at the front of the field for the past two weeks, proving why they are championship contenders.
Three positions on the race track. That's it.
After 35 races, it will all come down to the last 400-mile race.
Last year's three-way championship battle came down to the final race, but it was 15 points that separated Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson going into Homestead, while Kevin Harvick still had a mathematical shot 46 points out in third. When Hamlin buckled under the pressure, Johnson pounced and earned his fifth-consecutive championship in dramatic fashion.
In 2004, the first year of the Chase format, Kurt Busch held an 18-point advantage over Johnson heading into Homestead. During the race, Busch's championship dreams nearly came apart when a right front tire came off the car exiting Turn 4. Amazingly, Busch was able to pull the car to pit road, narrowly missing the pit wall, which would have been a disastrous end to his title campaign. Thanks to the split-second decision, Busch won his first title by only eight points.
In 1993, Dale Earnhardt Sr. entered the final race of the year (then at Atlanta Motor Speedway) with a 126-point lead over Rusty Wallace. Despite Wallace's dominant win, Earnhardt clinched the title with an 80-point lead.
One year prior, in perhaps the most dramatic championship battle in NASCAR history, the series headed into the final race with six drivers mathematically eligible for the title. Throughout the day, that list was narrowed down to just two – Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki.
Much like this year's battle, the two ran nose-to-tail at the front of the field for much of the afternoon. Kulwicki was able to lead one more lap than Elliott and clinch the most laps led. Elliott went on to win the race and Kulwicki finished second, but thanks to the extra bonus points, Kulwicki hoisted the championship trophy.
With Edwards and Stewart so close together heading into the final race, it will be as dramatic as any year in recent memory.
Edwards has won two of the last three Homestead races and has only one finish outside the top 10 (14th) in seven starts.
Stewart also has two wins at Homestead, but those came on the old configuration. His more recent statistics are not as impressive as Edwards, with four finishes of 15th or worse in the last seven races.
However, if Stewart has proven one thing this year, it is to never count him out. His pessimistic talk heading into the Chase has made his surge to the front of the standings that much more dramatic.
Typically, heading into the final race of the year, there are numerous "clinch scenarios" for each championship contender. This year, however, it is quite simple.
In order for Edwards to earn his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy, he needs to win the race. Regardless of where Stewart finishes, if Edwards is able to score the win, he will also take the title.
In the event of a tie, Stewart would get the advantage in the tiebreaker with his four wins on the season.
Two drivers, one race, 400 miles.
Regardless of the outcome, NASCAR history will be made on Sunday as one of the best championship battles in recent memory comes to a close.