Edwards leaps to a win

Driver prevails in Atlanta, but no one can jump over Stewart in Chase


HAMPTON, Ga. -- Carl Edwards won the race, but the big winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway yesterday finished ninth.

That was Tony Stewart, who despite a mediocre day increased his lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup to 43 points over Jimmie Johnson, who had a worse day, struggling to a 16th-place finish.

"A 43-point lead with three races to go isn't any cakewalk by any means," Stewart said. "But it does give you a little bit of breathing room."

Edwards' victory in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 completed his sweep of Nextel Cup races this year at Atlanta, and it was his third win of the season.

Although Edwards moved up one spot to fourth in the Chase, he remains 107 points behind Stewart - a serious but not insurmountable deficit.

"We need to do this for three more weeks, and we'll be all right," said Edwards, 26, a former substitute schoolteacher from Columbia, Mo. That would mean winning at Texas Motor Speedway next week, Phoenix the next, and Homestead-Miami in the Nov. 20 season finale.

But Jeff Gordon, who finished second to Edwards and is Johnson's mentor and car owner, looked over the standings and began to wonder whether Stewart might clinch before the finale - which would be a first for NASCAR's 2-year-old playoff format.

Told of Johnson's 16th-place finish, Gordon said, "That definitely wasn't the way they [Johnson's branch of the Hendrick Motor- sports team] wanted to come out of here."

Johnson won this race last year and finished second to Edwards this past March here.

"Who knows?" Gordon said. "Phoenix might be the decider for those guys."

Stewart tried to be politely cautious about it - "One [bad] race could drop us to fifth in the points," he said.

"We're closing this thing down now. The next three tracks are all tracks that I'm excited about. So I'm leaving here with a smile on my face."

Johnson and Greg Biffle, who moved into third place in the playoff standings by finishing seventh yesterday, are the only two drivers with realistic chances of catching Stewart for the championship.

Still, the irrepressibly exuberant Edwards refused to be counted out.

"Absolutely, we're making a run," he said.

Then his enthusiasm outran his arithmetic. "If we gain 35 points a week, we'll - " Here he stopped, redid the math, laughed at himself and said, "lose the championship by two points."

Quickly he recovered though, adding, "If we make up 36 points a week, we'll win it by a point."

Edwards, noted for his acrobatic back-flips off his car after victories, would have gotten only about a 9.1 this time from gymnastics judges - he missed his landing a bit.

But he got a 9.9 for his driving from Gordon.

"He obviously knows how to get around here," Gordon said. "He was smooth and fast and made some great moves out there."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the most laps of the race, 142 of 325, before falling back with an understeer in his Chevrolet.

Earnhardt wound up fourth, behind another driver who had led a lot, Mark Martin.

"We got tight," Earnhardt said in racer's jargon for the understeer. "And those other guys got better. Those guys improved their cars and had dominant stuff at the end. Heckuva car Carl Edwards had."

Edwards so thoroughly commanded the final 84 laps that he was able to let Roush teammate Matt Kenseth, another Chase contender, pass him and lead one lap for five bonus points. But on the next lap, Edwards breezed back in front. From there (at Lap 290), he faced only a fleeting challenge from Gordon.

"I had a great car," Gordon said, "and at one point I was pushing it so hard, and was barely gaining on him. I couldn't push it any harder. Then finally I started to get loose [oversteering]. And I felt like I wore the right rear tire out trying to catch him. ...

"And then he just started to take off there at the end. There was not a chance for me to catch him."

If yesterday didn't decide who'll be champion, it did pretty well determine who won't be. Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield and 2004 Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch all had early trouble. Busch wound up 36th and fell 260 points off the lead, Wallace was 37th and is now 257 back, and Mayfield was 38th and is 310 out.

Johnson, who came into the race trailing Stewart by only 15 points, ran decently for most of the day before his Chevrolet went fitful as the sun set.

"We were inside the top 10 for most of the day," Johnson pointed out. "But just there at the end we couldn't [make the proper adjustments], and the car got loose for some reason."

All in all, Johnson concluded, "It's not the end of the world."

As for Stewart, "It's too early to get too excited," he said.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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