Stewart sees no need to change approach
Tony Stewart is a puzzle. He says he doesn't points race, but then he says he'll play it safe when he doesn't have the win in sight.
But whether you call what Stewart does "points racing," one thing is for sure: He's good at it. And that could be the nail in the coffin for all other Chase for the Nextel Cup racers.
Stewart is all but unbeatable down the stretch because he's reliable when you need him to come through. Now, 38 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 77 points ahead of Carl Edwards, the title race is in his control -- though he's got little room to breath.
"With the last couple of weeks the way they've been, we've been able to stay pretty consistent in our point margin," Stewart said. "With only two weeks to go it probably makes it a little easier on us to just worry about doing what we've been doing. That's all we've been doing all year, anyway. We haven't really been concerned with anybody else. We've just focused on what we need to do and it's working."
Little surprise that that's what Stewart and Co. have planned for this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
"We're just out there doing our job," Stewart said. "The good thing is that we're just going out and doing what we've done all year. We go out and try to win the race. And if we can't win the race, we're not going to take any chances to win it. We'll just take what we can get and do it safely."
That makes Stewart the favorite for the title. Still, Roush Racing is strong at Phoenix and Mark Martin's been on fire.
Martin has one win and eight top-five finishes. What's more, in 18 tries at Phoenix, Martin has 13 top-10s.
Add to that the fact that Martin is on a roll, finishing third and second in his last two races, and it's not hard to see why Martin is the favorite for Sunday.
"We are looking forward to going back to Phoenix and hopefully getting another strong run," crew chief Pat Tryson said. "We were off there in the spring race, so we are hoping to go there and get that corrected and come out with another good finish. We've been really fast lately -- we just have come up a little short on getting the win. Hopefully this week we can go there and come out on top."
Added Martin: "We've had some really strong runs in the last couple of races and I can't tell you how proud I am of Pat Tryson and this Viagra race team. These cars that they are giving me are awesome and it's a lot of fun to drive them. We had a really good car this past weekend at Texas and we almost pulled it off, but we just lost out to the best car. We've finished second and third in the last two so hopefully we can do just a little better this week and get us another win here before this thing is over."
Riding the wave
Are you kidding? Carl Edwards has two straight victories heading into Phoenix and he finished seventh earlier this season at PIR.
Edwards is going to need a strong effort on Sunday to creep further into contention.
"We came from two laps down there in the spring to finish seventh so I know we have ability to run well," he said. "The last two weeks have been awesome and our goals have definitely evolved throughout the year. My primary focus right now is to win this championship. Both Tony and Jimmie will be tough to beat but this Office Depot team isn't out of contention just yet. We're going to do everything we can to go out there and run up front and try to win this thing."
History on their side
Combined, the five Roush drivers have 21 top-10s and three victories at Phoenix in 35 tries.
"We've definitely hit on something there," Roush said. "I think it's a track that suits the driving style of a lot of [my drivers], and we've been fortunate to have teams turn out really fast race cars [for Phoenix]."
Cause for concern
Johnson need not hit the panic button -- after all, he's within 38 points of the prize. Still, Johnson needs to make a move right now. If he wants the title, he's going to need to make up some distance on Sunday.
Johnson said he's keenly aware of the task at hand.
"To be in control isn't a bad thing, especially with a few races left," he said. "Where we are, especially from last year, we experienced a lot leading the points all year long. And when we started to lose our advantage and not have the speed, we panicked and started to do some things wrong. And then we recovered and got it back and just ran out of time, basically.
"So, I like where we are. I think we're in good shape. There are a lot of good tracks coming up for everybody. Everybody is going to have to fight for the end."
While everyone will show up to fight, the title bout appears to be between Johnson and Stewart. Johnson said that alone has been a motivating factor.
"We can win the championship on racing and not have to count on bad luck on anybody's behalf," he said. "It looks like we've also stretched out a little cushion over a couple of guys and don't have to worry about losing anything there."
Rusty Wallace has a victory at Phoenix and is racing for something just as, if not more so, important, than a title. He's racing for his legacy and his pride. A victory in one of these final two events would mean the world. His best shot is this weekend.
"Everybody wants to go out on top," he said. "That's what that would be. I have already experienced such a wonderful career but leaving on a win would be something else."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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