Advantage Tony Stewart, but only by the tiniest of margins.
On a Phoenix International Raceway surface where track position will be king on Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Kobalt Tools 500, Stewart beat rival Carl Edwards in qualifying on Saturday.
Stewart qualified ninth and Edwards 10th and that means Stewart will start the race on row four with Edwards behind him in row five.
With only three points separating Edwards, in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford and Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet, and with only two races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, where each will start on Sunday could play huge once the green flag is waved.
Possibly more importantly, Stewart will get to pick his team’s pit stall before Edwards.
And in the fight to be first off pit lane, a favourable pit stall can shave a tenth of a second and that can be the difference between winning and also-ran status — especially at a very slippery PIR where the consensus is that there will be plenty of wrecks come Sunday afternoon.
For the record, Matt Kenseth won the pole in the No. 17 RFR Ford with a lap of 137.101 m.p.h., A.J. Allmendinger was second fastest in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford at 136.446 m.p.h. and RPM teammate Marcos Ambrose third at 136.307 m.p.h.
But make no mistake about it, Stewart and Edwards are the only two that count in Sunday’s race and they both know that every advantage is key.
Oh sure, Kevin Harvick, Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson all still have a mathematical chance, but only Albert Einstein believes that could happen.
Edwards, for one, thinks his battle with Stewart — who has a pair of Sprint Cup championship trophies with his name on them — could go down to the final lap next week at Homestead Miami Speedway.
“For us it is pretty neat to be holding off a two-time champ having the best Chase he has ever had,” Edwards said. “I truly believe it will come down to the last lap at Homestead ... neck and neck, tied, then the hair might be standing up on my neck.”
Edwards, who is looking for his first Cup championship, is confident that his steady, consistent finishes in the first eight of the 10-race Chase will serve him well over the next two races even in the face of Stewart’s four wins over that same stretch.
“We haven’t won one race in the Chase and are leading the points,” Edwards said. “Those guys have won four and ... nobody can discount how strong they have been. There is a little bit of pride on our side, knowing that even as good as they have been with four wins in the Chase, we are still leading, beating them.”
That may be so, but Stewart thinks it is his team that has the momentum in the final two races and that he should be favoured to win his third title.
“I feel like we are to be honest,” Stewart said. “I think we showed that last week (by winning at Texas). We’re not racing worrying about where they’re at and what they’re doing each day. We’re worrying about our car.”
Stewart did say that he and Edwards may be rivals on the track but off the track, while not bosom buddies, are friendly.
“Carl and I get along fine actually; we don’t go hang out together. It’s hard for drivers to spend a lot of time with each other these days like we used to in the past.
“We get along with each other at the race track. I guess it’s a friendly rivalry if you even want to call it a rivalry.”
The one thing that neither Stewart nor Edwards can control, however, is the weather and forecasters are calling for a 40% chance of rain, which would throw a big wrench into both of the leaders’ plans.