- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Lo and behold, there's suddenly a championship battle in the Busch Series. Unfortunately for NASCAR, it's not the type of battle that gets casual fans of the sport all atwitter.
Despite a string of subpar finishes, Carl Edwards still holds a commanding 766-point lead over David Reutimann with just 11 races left in the season. Even if Edwards keeps stumbling, it's hard to see that lead vanishing, assuming he starts the remaining races.
Defending champion Kevin Harvick sits 791 points out of the lead but isn't running the full Busch schedule this year, so he's not a factor. And fourth-place Jason Leffler is 920 points back, so it's Edwards' title barring something drastic.
But that doesn't necessarily mean Roush Fenway Racing will be celebrating the owners' championship alongside Edwards. That honor easily could belong to Richard Childress Racing, as its No. 29 car -- which has been split by Jeff Burton and Scott Wimmer this season -- sits just 41 points out of the lead heading into Saturday's Carfax 250 at Michigan International Speedway.
It's an amazing rally as the No. 29 team has gained 227 points on Edwards' No. 60 entry in the past five races. The teams have occupied the top two spots in the owners' standings since the season's seventh race at Nashville back in April.
After Edwards won at Nashville in June, the No. 29 was a whopping 302 points out of the lead. Edwards hasn't won since, though, and the gap is closing.
Michigan, though, has been good to Edwards -- even before he broke a lengthy Nextel Cup drought with a win there back in June. Last August, he seemed poised to win the track's Busch Series race until contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a green-white-checkered finish left him 23rd and saw him confronting Earnhardt in Victory Lane.
"I can't wait to get back to Michigan International Speedway for lots of reasons. I just had a great Cup win there in June, and our Busch car has always been fast there," Edwards said. "This is by far one of my favorite tracks. It's 2 miles of pure adrenaline. You can race and pass all over the track. We ran up front the whole race last year and came up a lap short of the win."
"We can't wait to get back there and fight for the lead again," added crew chief Pierre Kuettel.
Edwards will be dealing with Burton in the No. 29 car this weekend as the veteran driver looks to give Childress another owners' championship. Harvick won the championship in 2001, with Childress also ending up as the top owner.
Interestingly enough, Burton and Michigan International Speedway played key roles in Edwards' ascension through the sport. Burton left what was then Roush Racing for RCR before the Michigan race in August 2004. That enabled Edwards to get a head start on his Cup career, and he finished 10th at MIS in his debut.
Burton could be a formidable challenger this weekend, as he has a win, four top-5s and seven top-10s in just 10 Busch Series starts at the track. And RCR's Busch program seems to be hitting on all cylinders; Harvick has five wins to go along with two each for Clint Bowyer and Burton.
Burton, though, knows as well as just about anyone what it takes to run well at Michigan.
"If you look at the field in the Busch Series, there are a lot of tough competitors and really good teams," Burton said. "You always want to get around the corner a little better than someone else, and that is the amount of grip you can generate.
"You can never really know what you need to do because things change. We build a hypothesis based on all the information we have and, hopefully, we build the right one."
A championship battle outside the limelight depends on it.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
2dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz