If only Don King liked cars going in circles, the boxing promoter would be smiling proud this Friday morning. Heading into Homestead-Miami, the tete-a-tete battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards just ratcheted up a notch in the form of a little pre-race posturing.
For most of the past few weeks, it’s been Stewart driving this phenomenon, doing most of the talking as a man who never hesitates to speak his mind. And that’s how it started on Thursday afternoon, Smoke signaling to the national media he won’t back down from the challenge of unseating NASCAR’s Sprint Cup point leader.
“I’d wreck my mom to win a championship,” he said when asked if a last lap bump ‘n’ run of Edwards was on the table – should the No. 99 be positioned directly in front of him. “I respect him as a driver, but this isn’t about friendships this weekend. 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.”
Up until now, you would expect that Edwards, ever the consummate gentleman in public, would respond by hitting the ignore button. After all, as Stewart has stepped up the rhetoric these past few weeks, Cousin Carl has played the cordial card – dismissing the trash talk while keeping his eye on the prize.
But on this Thursday afternoon… something changed. For the first time in this ten-race postseason, Edwards didn’t just sit back and digest the jabs threatening to knock him off a championship perch.
He answered back.
“He’s got the talking part figured out,” Edwards said, straight to Tony. “Problem is, you haven’t led the points yet this year, have you?”
“They say there’s talkers and doers,” responded Stewart. “I’ve done this [win a Sprint Cup championship] twice.”
“That’s the funny thing,” answered Edwards. “I’ve listened to you talk a lot today. You’ve talked a lot about your past successes. That is very respectable. And truly, all joking aside, that will make it more fun if we’re able to beat you. It will make me more proud.”
But Cousin Carl didn’t stop there. Later on, after Stewart re-emphasized that as the second-place point man, he had nothing to lose the current point leader moved to dispute that claim.
“I’m not really buying it,” added Edwards. “I mean, he does have two trophies already at home. That’s a huge accomplishment. But I believe that Tony as an owner and as a competitor, I mean, if you’re asking me to believe that he doesn’t go to bed thinking, Man, I want to win this thing as bad as anyone, I don’t believe that.”
All of a sudden, Stewart’s mental mind games over the last three weeks, started after Victory Lane at Martinsville have a willing and equal partner. Edwards, for better or for worse has made an effort to “fight back” in an effort to prove he won’t be bothered.
Will that pay off for Edwards in the end? It’s hard to say. Sometimes, acknowledging you’re affected by what people are saying in this situation is the best way to provoke verbal jabs. Now was Edwards sitting there shaking, like Denny Hamlin’s near heart attack from verbal jabs that led to his title demise in November, 2010? Far from it. But for the first time, this back-and-forth revealed that Edwards _does_ care what Stewart is saying, at least outside the car. Stewart the talker has riled up his opponent, at least to a certain degree and to me that’s a bit of a moral victory for him. At no point during that press conference did Edwards seem to successfully rile Stewart, who’s been at this game plenty of times before. The more mind games that get put into play, the more likely it is that Stewart will know how to play them; Edwards would do well to remember the best way to win a championship is to focus on what he can control – himself.
There’s one silver lining for everyone, though: heading into the weekend those comments, carried on ESPN can translate into a huge national exposure boost for NASCAR. It doesn’t really matter what side you’re on in this argument: the bottom line is we’re sitting here talking about championship hype on a Friday morning. And with 48 hours until the race, there’s plenty more time for questions, talking, and both sides trying to get inside each other’s head.
All week long, we’ve been told how fun this championship battle is going to be. Thursday, we got a quick glimpse of just how entertaining it could be – and so far, it hasn’t disappointed.