AT LAST Carl Edwards has created some genuine race-to-the-finish drama in the Chase for the Cup. Lord knows the guy's been trying. Whether it was his video-game-inspired near-calamitous attempt to pass Jimmie Johnson on the last lap at Kansas on Sept. 28 or the late-race multicar wreck he inadvertently caused at Talladega on Oct. 5 or his public shoving match with Kevin Harvick less than a week later at Charlotte, Edwards has seemed bent on injecting excitement into a championship season that has been mostly devoid of it. But with a gutsy, brilliantly executed victory in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Sunday—the eighth race of the 10-event Chase—he finally succeeded, cutting Johnson's commanding 183-point lead to 106 and setting himself up for a chance at his first Cup title. If Johnson still appears a solid bet to win his third straight championship, Edwards is doing his best to make sure Johnson has to work for it and the fans won't be cheated in the finale at Homestead-Miami on Nov. 16.
For most of the Dickies 500, Edwards had the fastest car, leading a race-high 212 laps. But he and crew chief Bob Osborne, unwilling to risk giving up the lead on pit road, secured their eighth victory of the season (tying Kyle Busch for the series-best total) with a daring fuel-mileage strategy that kept Edwards on the track for the final 69 laps. With an enormous lead of more than 10 seconds, Edwards backed off the pedal over the final 12 laps while all around him competitors stopped for a splash of gas or ran out of fuel altogether. "Bob's never yelled at me for going too fast, but he did tonight," said Edwards, who dropped some 10 mph below the pace of the challengers behind him and the lapped cars who were whizzing past him. "I thought there was no way we could go that slow and stay in the lead."
Johnson, meanwhile, never recovered from the handling problems he fought early on. Much of the talk in the garage last weekend had centered on how his huge points lead had drained all the excitement from NASCAR's postseason. But on Sunday the driver who'd run off 12 straight top 10s in Chase races (dating to last season) suddenly found himself struggling to crack the top 20. On Lap 96 the leader Edwards lapped Johnson, a deficit that the defending champion never overcame. After finishing 15th and seeing his points lead dwindle, Johnson described his experience as akin to "getting kicked in the [groin] over and over."
Edwards has won two straight races and carries more momentum into the season's final two weeks than any other driver among the seven still mathematically in contention. But Johnson remains formidable at Phoenix (next week's site, where he has won twice) and Homestead (five top 10s in seven starts). Edwards has yet to win at either oval, something that must change if he's going to catch Johnson. "I think we're in a good spot," says Edwards. "We've got nothing to lose, so we can just go out and be aggressive and take chances."
That's one thing Cup fans can count on.
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Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.