After 36 races and 9 months, the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship has come down to a single race, and two very different drivers in the form of Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Where Stewart’s prickly persona epitomizes blunt force driven by guts, gristle and guile, Edward delivers a smooth burn that creates little in the way of turbulence. As a result, the NASCAR nation is set for a treat when the circus sets up at Homestead.
At Phoenix, the two antagonists were separated by 3 points at the begin of the weekend, and they were still separated by 3 points when everything was said and done. However, although last weekend’s points total remained the same at the end of the day, the two drivers generated diametrically opposed performances when it came to visceral excitement. Where Edwards crafted a methodical, almost flat-line effort marked by a P9 start, and a P2 finish while leading twice for 27 laps, Stewart’s performance was marked by a host of ‘guts and glory’ restarts that allowed him to lead the event 5 times, took the event’s fastest lap, and secured the most lead laps run in a somewhat disappointing final P3 effort.
Now, we come to The Adrenalist’s odds picks for the ultimate round at Homestead, along with who will take the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. But, regardless of who wins the whole deal, the weekend’s expectation level is going to be over the top, and filled with drama, excitement, and pure intensity – just like we like it.
Carl Edwards (2:1 odds): Certainly, Edwards is hanging on to the series lead – but only. Given his effort last weekend, our sense is that he’s going to be more interested in losing, rather than winning at Homestead, but in the case of going head-to-head with Stewart, his personal pucker factor is likely to be at the redline. Last weekend, Bob Osborne gave Carl a car that was more akin to the consistency expected of a family car, as opposed to an all-out race car, and the Roush team’s tendency to favor middle-of-the-road setups may, in the end of the day catch Edwards out. Homestead is a true mile and a half oval, and the racetrack’s banking lends itself to aggressive, rather than conservative car packaging. Add that to a driver who may be feeling the yips, along with a setup that offers no outright speed and handling advantage, and the Roush effort could go south in a short heartbeat.
Tony Stewart (Even Money): Smoke is, well, Smoke. There’s no one like him in the paddock, and his unique blend of old-school racecraft, mixed with his visionary business thinking, has created a racing force that is not to be denied. It’s not that Tony is necessarily better than his competitors in a physical sense, but he seems to have the ability to push the bar higher than the other guys at will. As a result, he pulls everyone else up behind him, and this X factor can easily make the difference at Homestead. The thing about Stewart is that he’s both plain speaking, and his driving goal are equally plain; get to front, dominate, and not just beat the other guy, then simply win, because winning pays better than second place. Stewart’s crew chief Darren Grubb is cut from the same cloth, and the hardware they build together is some of the most aggressive and on the edge equipment in NASCAR. So, when the weekend kicks off, look for the #14 at the front in practice, qualifying and throughout the race, because Stewart will be coming like a freight train.
The Best Of The Rest
Kevin Harvick (2:1 odds): Kevin Harvick has had a generally good, yet frustrating, season and the last two events have proven to be good illustrations of the point. As mentioned in the past, Harvick is well-known for his inconsistency, but this season he has shown good top-5/top-10 stability throughout. Unfortunately, although he started The Chase at the top of the standings, Martinsville and Phoenix killed his chances for the Championship. Nonetheless, Kevin will probably be able to put paid on P3 at the end of the day, and beating the guy in P4 will be somewhat of a consolation.
Brad Keslowski (3:1 odds): This kid has begun to impress, along with his guys at Penske South. The last time the ‘The Captain’ had this strong a group in Mooresville was when Rusty Wallace ran the venerable ‘Blue Duce.’ Since then, however, the Penske bunch has tended to plod along, as opposed to being dominant, even though Kurt Busch did manage to win the Nextel Championship in 2004. Since he won, however, lackadaisical results have plagued a team that should have had everything necessary to win, yet simply hasn’t. More times than not, team chemistry has been the culprit as Kurt Busch has never been a team leader, who instead has become something of a de-motivating whiner. However, even in the midst of regular snits, he can still get out of his head long enough to raise his game whenever he’s being directly pushed; enter Brad Keslowski, who is all about ‘push.’ Can the kid catch Harvick for third, yes. However, at Phoenix the ‘old’ Penske engineering problems cropped up, and watching Brad try to wrestle the slippery ‘Blue Pig,’ around the racetrack was about as much as we could stand. Still, if the team can get on the same page in Homestead, third is in the bag and next year should be even better.
There are our takes on the last four drivers/teams who are still racing for something in 2011. Although the year has devolved to a two-horse for the Sprint Cup Championship, hungry Adrenalist’s will still have plenty to watch and talk about further down the field.