Going into 2011, NASCAR needed more than just a shot in the arm to reverse, or at least halt its move in the wrong direction. NASCAR needed a shakeup. 

NASCAR needed a good start with a good story coming out of Daytona. Enter Trevor Bayne, delivering the feel good win while driving for the legendary Wood Brothers- a team winless since the days of Elliott Sadler.

NASCAR needed someone other than the usual suspects in Victory Lane. This season, fans have been treated wins by guys like Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard.

NASCAR also needed Jimmie Johnson to loosen his stranglehold on the sport. No one roots for Goliath. Jimmie may still be “Superman,” but if that’s true, somewhere along the line the five-time champ got slipped a major dose of kryptonite.   

Ratings are up,the feeling of resignation that one drivers owns NASCAR is down, and it’s getting downright racy between two distinctly different personalities. Yes, the emergence of rough and rugged Tony Stewart is just what the Chase needs in its final two races of the 2011 season.

While a championship for Edwards would mark a change from Jimmie Johnson, there’s a lot about the polished, sunny Missourian the looks a bit too familiar. It’s not to say the points leader is too perfect, after all, this is the same driver who sent Brad Keselowski airborne at Atlanta, put a hold on Harvick, and even turned on a teammate (Matt Kenseth) after a Nationwide race incident at Martinsville. It’s just that if you set that darker component of Edwards make-up to the side, you end up with someone who is a little too refined for a certain portion of NASCAR nation. 

On the other hand, with Tony Stewart, you get a bit of a throwback; Smoke is old school a la his racing hero, A.J. Foyt. Smoke is plain-spoken, has a playful sense of humor in the same vein as Dale Earnhardt, and possesses a keen racing mind. With maturity has come a sense of perspective that comes from being a former open wheeler, a two-time champion, and now, a racer with an ownership stake.

Not only is he a racer’s racer, Stewart also has that Everyman machismo that resonates well with much of the sport’s fan base. While Edwards has the panache for magazines and TV screens, Smoke has that Joe Six Pack flair that hits home with the regular guy.

Making his story even more compelling is how he got here: after fighting through the ups and downs of the first 26 races, Stewart is driving like a man possessed, with four victories in eight races. Now, with two races left, Stewart and Edwards run neck and neck, and no clear edge to either one.

This is what a championship match-up should look like. It’s Ford vs. Chevy, grit vs. charm, the long, lean clean-cut guy vs. the stocky guy who’s a little rough around the edges. For what seems like the first time since the days of Gordon vs. Earnhardt, fans have a choice.

NASCAR is a distinctly American form of racing. Americans like freedom of choice. That’s what NASCAR fans have in this Chase, thanks to the sudden surge of Tony Stewart to push the consistent Carl Edwards down to the wire. 

Other articles by Jim McCoy include:

Winners Keep Their Cool
Blaney’s Top 5 Score One For NASCAR Joes
A Jolt Of Racing Reality