CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR has tinkered and tweaked and tried time and again to create a championship system that would resonate with sports fans.
The goal was to get a "Game 7" type moment that developed into can't-miss-TV.
Now, after several tweaks to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format, NASCAR seems to have exactly what it wanted with a two-driver title competition heading into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It's Columbia native Carl Edwards going for his first Cup title over two-time champion Tony Stewart in a battle between two NASCAR drivers who are well recognized beyond industry lines.
Edwards goes into the finale clinging to a three-point lead over Stewart, and both drivers have been at the top of their game the last month. They finished second and third at Phoenix on Sunday to eliminate everyone else from title contention and ensure one of them will take the Cup next weekend from five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
"It's the best points battle I've been a part of at this level," Edwards said. "I still don't understand why we're both running so good. Seems like subconsciously we're both able to dig down and our teams are able to give us what we need, and everybody has been performing at a high level. It's been neat that this battle has brought out the best in us."
It's also brought out the best in NASCAR, which heads into its championship weekend with some healthy momentum and exciting story lines that have boosted interest. Through the first eight Chase races, ratings are up more than 7 percent from 2010, and the overnight numbers from the major markets following Sunday's race at Phoenix were at 2.7 — up from 2.4 last year.
The Nationwide Series will crown a new champion on Saturday and, under new participation rules set this season, it won't be a NASCAR superstar. Because drivers were allowed to collect points in only one series this year, the title focus has been on the Nationwide and Trucks Series regulars.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a 24-year-old in the Roush Fenway Racing development system, will win his first NASCAR championship with a finish of 37th or better in Saturday's race. He will be the first non-Cup driver to win that series title since Martin Truex Jr.
Stenhouse's title bid was aided in Phoenix when Jason Leffler wrecked contender Elliott Sadler, in a race that ended with Sam Hornish Jr. in Victory Lane. Considered one of the greatest American open-wheel racers, Hornish had been kicked around in stock cars and, the tears he shed following his first NASCAR victory showed just how trying the last few years have been.
Hornish's victory was popular in motorsports circles and again proved that racing in NASCAR is very, very difficult no matter the skill level.
There will be a new winner in the Trucks Series, too, as Austin Dillon goes into Friday night's finale with a 20-point lead over Johnny Sauter and a 28-point advantage over James Buescher. Dillon, the 21-year-old grandson of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, needs to finish 16th or better to claim the title.
Even if he doesn't, though, and loses out to Sauter or Buescher, the champion will not be a driver staving off retirement. Except for Travis Kvapil in 2003, every Trucks Series champion has been an aging veteran extending their career through the series.
The champion maybe could have even been 53-year-old Ron Hornaday Jr., had he not been intentionally wrecked by Kyle Busch two weeks ago at Texas. The deliberate accident took the four-time Trucks champion out of contention and earned Busch a weekend suspension.
He fought all last week to get back on the track at Phoenix, where a last-minute agreement with sponsors got him to Phoenix and kept the NASCAR world buzzing about Busch's future.
The entire episode also backed NASCAR into a bit of a corner.
NASCAR President Mike Helton insisted Busch was suspended specifically because of what happened with Hornaday and not because it was another misstep in a career pocked with bad behavior. So it was the line, so to speak, in the "Boys, have at it" policy that permits drivers to settle their scores without NASCAR interference.
And then it wasn't.
When Brian Vickers wrecked Matt Kenseth in Sunday's race, most everybody believed it was payback from their on-track collision at Martinsville last month. After all, Vickers had promised retaliation, and Kenseth knew it was eventually coming.
So it seemed more than a little suspicious to see Vickers ramming into the back of Kenseth, then staying on his bumper until Kenseth was in the wall. But NASCAR said nothing was afoul, and earlier reports of a brake problem by Kenseth maybe even provided an explanation for how Vickers ended up running into Kenseth.
Kenseth didn't buy it, and neither did most race fans, who failed to see an obvious distinction between Busch's behavior and Vickers'.
"It was so premeditated, it just surprises me that (NASCAR) didn't do anything," Kenseth said. "They need to figure out how to get the drivers to settle their difference in a different way and talk about it, or figure it out, or do something instead of using your car as a battering ram."
It was just another subplot in what's shaped up to be an exciting close to another season.
It's what chairman Brian France so desperately wanted — he said as much when he hinted at offseason points changes last year — and gives NASCAR plenty to promote this week in the buildup to Edwards vs. Stewart on Sunday.
"I want to go to Homestead tomorrow and start," Stewart said after Sunday's race. "I want tomorrow to be Friday. I'm pumped up. I'm excited about it and ready to go."
So is everyone else.