- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

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 fight heading into Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s 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 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 storylines 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 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’ll 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 past few years have been.

Hornish’s victory was popular in motorsports circles, and again proved that racing in NASCAR is very difficult, no matter the skill level.

There will be a new winner in the Craftsman Truck 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, 21, the 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 truck series champion has been an aging veteran extending his career through the series.

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