By Jerry Bonkowski
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When was the last time NFL fans passed up a home game for a NASCAR race?
That very well may be the case if fans of the 2-7 Miami Dolphins choose to skip Sunday's home game against the Buffalo Bills (5-4) to venture about 35 miles southward to Homestead-Miami Speedway to see something they won't see from their favorite football team this year: a true championship battle.
Given the vibe that has enveloped the Miami area all week, with the trash-talking battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 will likely not only be more entertaining than the Bills-Dolphins contest, but it may also wind up being one of the most entertaining championship-deciding races seen in quite some time in the Sprint Cup series.
For the first time in six seasons, Jimmie Johnson will not be a factor in Sunday's race – unless he gets into a wreck that takes out one or both of the only two frontrunners left in the championship battle.
While Johnson's unprecedented reign of five consecutive championships will come to an end, one of two things will take its place: either Stewart will win his third career Cup championship, or Edwards will win his first.
Stewart is perhaps as loose and calm as he's ever been in his 12-year NASCAR career. Even en route to his previous two titles, when he came into the season finale each time with an insurmountable edge over his closest challengers, Stewart, who trails Edwards by a mere three points, has a very philosophical perspective coming into Sunday's race.
"We have everything to gain, nothing to lose," Stewart said. "It's a dangerous combination to put us in that kind of mode because we've been hot lately, we've been running good, we're feeling good, the team is feeling good about everything. You couldn't ask for a better scenario."
Having won four of the first nine races in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart even has an uncharacteristic way of looking at the end result Sunday even if he ultimately loses the title to Edwards. Remember, this is Tony "Take no prisoners" Stewart we're talking about.
"We don't have anything to lose," Stewart said. "We can throw everything we got at it. If we make a mistake doing it, it doesn't cost anything. There's no penalty for us screwing up."
Indeed, no matter where he finishes Sunday, Stewart can finish no lower than second in the championship battle.
"We're not trying to overcome a big deficit, we're right there, right behind him," Stewart said. "We can finish 43rd this weekend and not be any worse off than we are right now."
But don't let Stewart's talk fool you. He knows what awaits him if he wins the championship.
First, it would be his third career Sprint Cup title, making him only the ninth driver in NASCAR history to win at least three career Cup championships. The others are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, each with five titles; Johnson with five titles; Jeff Gordon with four titles; and Darrell Waltrip, Lee Petty, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, each with three titles apiece.
Second, in what could ultimately wind up being one of the most satisfying and rare achievements of his career, if Stewart wins the championship he would become the first driver-team owner to do so since the late Alan Kulwicki came from behind to edge Bill Elliott by 10 points for the 1992 championship.
Third, Stewart would not only be forever known as the man who snapped Johnson's unprecedented five-championship string, he also would become only the second driver in NASCAR history to "bookend" another driver's string of multiple championships. Stewart was the last driver to win a Cup title prior to Johnson's five-season run.
The only other driver to be a "bookend" for another driver's multi-season (either two or three straight seasons) championship run was Richard Petty, who sandwiched championships in 1975 and 1979 around Cale Yarborough's streak of three Cup titles from 1976 through 1978.
"You wouldn't think you'd take a lot of pride in being the bookends of a dynasty," Stewart said. "But it is a pretty cool position to be in, to know that there's two guys in the last six years that have won championships, and we're one of them. It would be nice to be the guy that gets on the other side of that obviously."
While he's excited at the prospect of being the driver that finally unseated Johnson from the champion's throne, Stewart also empathizes that Johnson's run has come to an end.
"Obviously it's a disappointment to be eliminated from the Chase," Stewart said of Johnson. "It's like I told him, I think that for him going to Vegas to the (awards banquet the week after Thanksgiving), they have to really hold their heads up high and be very, very proud.
"It's been an honor to watch him do what he's done, but they need to be proud of what they've done the last five years. It's probably something that will never happen again in the history of our sport. It's very difficult to win a championship, let alone back-to-back and five in a row like that."
Given how tight of a battle Stewart and Edwards have had the last four weeks, Sunday's race has the potential to mirror the first-ever Chase-winning race in 2004, when the outcome was not decided until the final turn of the final lap, when Kurt Busch rolled ahead just enough to clinch his first Cup championship.
By eight points over, who else, Jimmie Johnson. And if it plays out that the only way Stewart or Edwards can win the championship is to go out and win the actual race itself, it would mark the first time since Jeff Gordon performed the double feat in 1998.
"It takes all the question of adding points, worrying about tiebreakers, this and that out of the equation when the fans can watch the guy that wins the race win the championship at the same time," Stewart said. "This is probably the best chance of having a championship decided with a win that you've ever had."
Added Edwards, "To me it would be the coolest thing in the world if we drove into turn three side-by-side, battled through the corner, one of us won by a bumper. It would just be better if I won."
And what happens if it's Stewart-Edwards or Edwards-Stewart 1-2 on the final turn of the final lap, with both drivers screaming towards the checkered flag and the championship? Hang on to your seat fans, because then we'll truly see NASCAR's "have at it, boys" in living color.
"Don't think for a second that either one of us are going to let anything slide," Edwards said. "We're going to go out here, we're going to race hard, and we're going for this championship. I don't think you could find two harder racers than us up here and we both know that about each other."
"I respect him as a driver, but this isn't about friendships this weekend," Stewart said of Edwards. "This is a war. This is a battle. This is for a national championship. It's no holds barred this weekend. I didn't come this far to be one step away from it and let it slip away, so we're going to go for it."
And if he has to, Stewart makes it very clear what he'll do: "I'd wreck my mom to win a championship."
Not if Edwards gets to Stewart first.