MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Forget the stakes. Forget the down-to-the-wire closeness of the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship entering Sunday’s final race. Forget that Tony Stewart, who trails Carl Edwards by a mere three points, has won two titles and wants a third. Forget that Edwards has dominated the series this season but never won a championship.
Forget that this is the first time in a half-decade someone besides Jimmie Johnson will earn the sport’s highest honor.
Forget all of that built-in, obvious, in-your-face drama, because the leading contenders would have you believe only the other guy has anything to worry about.
Three days before Sunday’s Sprint Cup finale in Homestead, Fla., a race that would settle one of the closest finishes in the eight-year history of the Chase for the Cup, Edwards and Stewart sat together in a tent erected on the sand in the hippest part of South Beach, each doing his best to look as cool and unflappable as the posers strolling Ocean Drive.
There were matter-of-fact jabs, smirks, bold proclamations and challenges. If the race comes close to matching the pre-race showmanship, fans surely will be riveted. Stewart insisted repeatedly that he had nothing whatsoever to lose while Edwards, who holds a 2,359 to 2,356 points advantage, faced massive pressure. Edwards espoused a different view.
“There’s no penalty if we screw up,” Stewart said. “. . . He’s in a position where he can lose something right now.”
Countered Edwards: “I’m not really buying it.”
Edwards explained that he, in fact, didn’t feel any stress whatsoever. His internal calm, he said, owed to certain personal matters, which he declined to explain.
“I don’t really have any nerves,” he shrugged.
Said Stewart: “I think he’s doing a pretty good acting job up there today. . . . You’re lying if you say there’s no pressure on you after being up there 10 weeks and trying to win your first championship.”
The gamesmanship kicked off Wednesday night, when Stewart traveled to the corporate headquarters of Office Depot, a major sponsor, in Boca Raton and met with company officials, including the chief executive. On the menu at the night’s dinner: roast duck. It was a detail Stewart almost gleefully volunteered.
Edwards is supported by Aflac, the insurance company with the famous duck.
Edwards enters the race as the sport’s most consistently excellent driver. He’s been the points leader all summer despite only winning one race — fewer than any other driver in the top six of the rankings. In 35 starts this year, he has had 25 top-10 finishes. He also has come close to claiming a pair of Sprint Cup titles, finishing second in 2008 and third in 2005.
He also loves the Homestead track and has been close to dominant there. He won last year’s race as Johnson claimed his fifth straight title with a second-place finish. Edwards is the highest-rated driver on the 11 / 2-mile track in the six races that have been contested there since 2005. Stewart isn’t in the top 10.
“I know what it takes to win here,” Edwards said. “. . . It could not be a better race track. This is Homestead. That’s why I feel we’re going into this in the best possible position to be in.”
Edwards took a step toward bolstering that claim by winning the pole in Saturday’s qualifying with a lap of 175.467 mph. Stewart qualified 15th with a lap of 173.333 mph.
Stewart has charged into title contention despite some poor starts, winning four times in the past nine races (at Chicago and New Hampshire in September and Martinsville, Va., and Texas in November). While Edwards has been steady, Stewart has been occasionally spectacular, and he describes his racing team as being on a roll, overflowing with confidence.
Stewart won the Sprint Cup title in 2002 and again in 2005, the last time anyone won it besides Johnson.
“It’s like Kid Rock says: It’s not cocky if you back it up,” Stewart said. “I think we’ve been backing it up the last three weeks.”
The man most notably absent from the kickoff news conference was Johnson, who sits 68 points behind Edwards after finishing 14th in last weekend’s race in Phoenix. Last year, despite trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points entering the final race day, Johnson surged ahead after Hamlin struggled with an early crash.
“I stood there in Victory Lane two of the last three years and watched Jimmy celebrate and imagined what it would be like to be the champion,” Edwards said. “It would be spectacular.”
Because of the tiny margin separating Edwards and Stewart, calculating the overall winner won’t be difficult: It will be the guy who gets to the finish first.
“It’s a pretty cool opportunity this weekend to be the other side of the bookend to Jimmie’s dynasty,” Stewart said. “It’s an awesome position to be in. Three points isn’t really a deficit at this point.”
As the pair met with reporters, they sat in front of the championship trophy for which they will be driving Sunday.
“There’s talkers and doers,” Stewart said. “I’ve done this two times.”
Said Edwards: “I don’t know any part of that trophy that makes the car faster this Sunday.”