Until the third turn of the 464th lap of last Sunday's event in Martinsville, the day appeared to belong to Matt Kenseth. He wasn't going to win the battle, which seemed destined to go to Jimmie Johnson, but the 2003 Sprint Cup - then Winston Cup - champion was going to take a major leap towards winning the war that is a battle for a Sprint Cup title.
Instead, Kenseth's Ford went slamming into the wall, and instead of taking a comfortable point lead with three races at tracks on which he has been successful remaining, he fell a possibly-insurmountable 36 points off the top spot.
Brad Keselowski then looked to gain major ground in his bid for one of the unlikeliest Sprint Cup titles in the circuit's history. Running in the top-10 for the entire day, he stood to potentially take the top spot in the standings. Instead, he was bumped into a spin on the race's final restart with only three laps remaining. He sits 27 points off the lead with three races left.
As Kenseth and Keselowski's hopes were diminishing, they were renewed for Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, who both turned in miraculous rebounds to finish ninth and win the race, respectively. Now they stand first and second, seperated by just eight points and with a 21 point gap on third-placed Kevin Harvick, who's hopes took a major hit when he was involved in a crash at Talladega.
Entering Sunday's AAA Texas 500, it would perhaps be unfair to Harvick and Keselowski to declare the title fight a two-man race. Still, the spread from Stewart to Harvick and the bravado Stewart exhibited following the race - warning Edwards not to sleep too much over the next three weeks - makes it easy to view this as a classic duel between two of the most popular drivers to race in the Sprint Cup series.
Edwards is seeking his first Sprint Cup title. He was one of the top drivers for most of the spring, but his pace fell off by midsummer. Regaining much-needed momentum in the final races of the regular season, he has picked up consistent results throughout the first seven races of the Chase despite having a number of races in which he ran well outside the top-15 before rebounding late.
Stewart, meanwhile, is after his third Sprint Cup title. He suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career and entered the Chase without a win. As though a switch had flipped, he won the first two races of the Chase at Chicago and Loudon. The less-than-stellar results from prior to the Chase returned over the next three events, but he finished seventh at Talladega and grabbed his third Chase win this past Sunday.
They're all but polar opposites. For starters, Edwards drives Fords for Jack Roush, while Stewart runs Chevrolets supplied by Rick Hendrick to his Stewart-Haas Racing team. Edwards got his career started by passing out business cards as a substitute teacher dreaming of making the big time. Stewart started in go-karts at the age of seven, then progressed through the USAC ranks to IndyCar and finally the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 1999.
Edwards, 32, is married with a son and a daughter, while the 40-year-old Stewart's family consists of his race teams and beloved pets. Edwards is the picture of fitness - quite literally, having appeared bare-chested on a number of magazine covers. Stewart, meanwhile, is celebrated for his "pizza and Coca-Cola" lifestyle, though he has worked some on his fitness the past couple of years. Edwards is a media darling, while Stewart, simply put, is not.
Perhaps their only similarities lie in their Midwestern roots - Edwards hails from Missouri, Stewart from Indiana - their on-track ferocity, and their generous nature off the track. Despite all the differences and Stewart's warning to Edwards, not to mention a war of words following an incident at Pocono in 2006, the pair have a mutual respect and friendship. Edwards is a frequent invitee to Stewart's Prelude to the Dream at the Eldora Speedway and won the event in 2007.
The contrast in personalities makes the championship fight one of the most intriguing in recent history, and it kicks off Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.