AP Photo/Jim R. Bounds
Start Your EnginesYou know the powers that be in Daytona Beach, Fla., hoped for a rally from someone, anyone, to make Jimmie Johnson sweat a little in his drive for a third consecutive Sprint Cup title. Carl Edwards has been the one to put together the push, winning the past two events to move from fourth to second in the standings and cut Johnson's margin over second place from 149 to 106 points with two races to go starting Sunday at Phoenix (3:45 p.m. ET, ABC). That doesn't automatically make this Chase the most compelling on record, however. In fact, it's the worst in terms of first-to-second margin with two races to go. Last season, Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon staged a great Chase battle, and they went to Phoenix separated by 30 points. Johnson had an even smaller gap in 2006, leading Matt Kenseth by 17 points with two races remaining. There were also three more drivers (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick) still in the conversation at 78 to 105 points back. A similar scrum marked the first Chase in 2004, with Kurt Busch leading Gordon by 41 points, Junior by 47 and Johnson by 48 going into Darlington, S.C., then the second-to-last Chase race. In 2005, Tony Stewart led with two to go, but Johnson and Edwards were much alive at 38 and 77 points back. Simply put, this year's fight is not a classic. It could be, in a one-race shootout at Homestead-Miami, but it's not there yet. "There are two races left. I have known all along we were going to have to fight every week for this thing. We had a nice, big points lead and we still have a great points lead, but in racing anything can happen and usually does," Johnson said. "[Texas] didn't go our way; it went the way the No. 99 needed." When the Roush Fenway Ford won and Johnson finished 15th on the fast 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth, Edwards got a 77-point bump in the standings that now makes him believe he can steal a Cup. But he has to continue the big gains at Phoenix, a place where Johnson has never been junk. The No. 48 Chevy has been the best in Sprint Cup over the past 10 races at the flat mile oval, with two wins (April and last year's Chase race), two seconds and an average finish of 6.0. The two blemishes on Johnson's Phoenix résumé are two 15ths, hardly awful. Edwards has been good at times, and off days have been way off. He finished fourth in the spring race but was second-to-last in the 2007 Chase race after blowing an engine. He led 87 laps that day, his only laps led at Phoenix in eight career starts. "Phoenix is, I think, one of the most fun racetracks we go to. A driver can really make a difference there," Edwards said. "It sometimes comes down to calls by crew chiefs and stuff like that. So I really feel like that racetrack will be good." What's good for Edwards is the No. 99 in front with the No. 48 nowhere in sight, as he needs another Texas-sized points gain. A side-by-side duel with Johnson this weekend is exactly what Edwards can't afford to have. Johnson, of course, would love it. He has no interest in this Chase getting too interesting with two to go.
Rocket ManCarl Edwards: Not all Chase wins feel great. Two weeks ago at Atlanta, Edwards' excitement was tempered in Victory Lane upon learning Jimmie Johnson fought back for second. Texas, that was more like it. Lead two-thirds of the laps in the Roush Fenway No. 99 Ford and have the No. 48 come home 15th. "I feel satisfied, you know, that we did take a chunk out of that lead," Edwards said. "Jack [Roush] and I had talked about it. I think it averaged out to where if we won them all and [Johnson] finished ninth these last three race, we could beat him." Long, long way to go for that scenario to come true, but it started perfectly. John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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