Homestead, FL – Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Miami Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 3:00 p.m. (et). Laps: 267. Miles: 400.5. 2010 Winner: Carl Edwards. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.
No, we're not doing the countdown for a rocket launch.
Edwards currently holds a three-point lead over Stewart. They are the only drivers who remain in championship contention.
With a newer and simpler scoring format this year, Edwards' present lead over Stewart roughly translates to 13 points under the previous points system. That makes it the slimmest margin between the top-two drivers going into the final race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup since NASCAR began its playoff format for its premier series in 2004. It's also the third-closest separation since the inception of the position-based points structure in 1975.
Last year, Denny Hamlin held a 15-point lead over Jimmie Johnson when the series arrived at Homestead, which was the closest margin in the Chase finale. Johnson's second-place finish compared to a 14th-place run for Hamlin allowed Johnson to clinch his record-extending fifth straight Sprint Cup championship by a 39-point margin.
Edwards and Stewart have been duking it out in the last two races.
Earlier this month, Stewart won at Texas and moved to within three points of Edwards, who finished second there. The points margin between the two remained the same after Edwards placed second and Stewart third at Phoenix.
"It's fun when we're first and second in the points. and we're running first and second on the racetrack the last two weeks," Stewart said. "It shows why we're both in this position.
"We just got to keep doing what we're doing. We got to keep the pressure on. Two weeks in a row we've led the most laps, and I'm really proud of that. Proud of the pressure we're putting on him. A lot can happen in 400 miles [at Homestead]."
Edwards has finished no worse than 11th in the Chase so far this year. He took over the points lead after Kansas -- the fourth race in the playoffs -- and has remained atop the standings since then.
After winning the first two Chase races -- Chicagoland and New Hampshire -- Stewart lost his momentum by finishing 25th at Dover and then 15th at Kansas. He had dropped to seventh in the point standings. But Stewart has steadily bounced back since then, scoring five straight top-10 finishes, including victories at Martinsville and Texas.
"It's neat to me that Tony and the guys on the 14 are running so well, won so many races and performing on a high level," Edwards said. "It's going to mean more if we're able to beat them in this championship because of that, to beat Tony and those guys at their peak.
"I can truthfully say this is the best Chase we've ever had. We haven't gone out and got the trophies that we have in other Chases, but we've performed better than we ever have. If they're beating us, they're beating us at our best, and I think that's pretty neat."
If Edwards wins at Homestead, he will be guaranteed of his first Sprint Cup championship. Edwards has two victories at this track -- 2008 and 2010. He also has an average finish of 5.7 in seven races here.
"Homestead is going to be a lot of fun," he said. "I really enjoy racing there. The cool thing about Homestead, you're going to be able to move around, pass and not get hung up as badly in traffic as you can at other racetracks. For the sport in general, I don't think there's a better place to go than Homestead to fight for this championship."
Stewart won the first two Cup races at Homestead from 1999-2000, when the racetrack had a flat, rectangular configuration based on Indianapolis Motor Speedway's layout. Homestead, a 1.5-mile track, was reconfigured in 2003, with banking in the turns increased variably to 18-20 degrees.
Stewart's average finish at Homestead is 12.4. He is one of four active drivers in the series that has competed in all 12 races here.
"I like Homestead," he said. "It's a place that we had a lot of success when it was flat. We haven't got that win with it banked. I like the way that track races right now."
Stewart is attempting to win his third series championship. He won it in 2002 and '05. If Stewart clinches the title this weekend, he would join David Pearson, Lee Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough as the drivers with three championships. He would also become just the second driver and owner titleholder. Alan Kulwicki accomplished the feat first in 1992.
"It's just about getting four more points than he does; that's all that matters," Stewart said.
Stewart does have one advantage over Edwards in the title fight right now. If the two were to end up in a points tie after Homestead, Stewart would be awarded the championship based on his four wins this season -- all of them coming in the Chase. Edwards has only one win for the season, which came in March at Las Vegas, a track similar to Homestead.
Three-two-one. Who wants it the most?
"There would be nothing better than coming down the last lap side-by-side racing for the win; that would be really fun," Edwards said.
Forty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Ford 400.