NASCAR driver Carl Edwards exits his car Saturday after qualifying for… (Matt York / Associated Press )
Reporting from Avondale, Ariz. -- Before reaching NASCAR's top level, Carl Edwards made ends meet as a substitute school teacher in Missouri while buying ads in racing journals and handing out business cards at racetracks in hopes of landing a ride.
So when Edwards was asked whether he was nervous about holding a mere three-point lead over Tony Stewart with only two races left in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup title playoff, Edwards understandably replied: "No."
"I maybe should be but I am not," Edwards said ahead of Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, which will be followed by the season finale at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway next weekend.
If it's "the last restart at Homestead, neck and neck, tied and if it's best man win, then the hair might be standing up on my neck," said Edwards, who is seeking his first Cup title.
Stewart has the momentum, with the two-time champion having won the last two races and four of the eight Chase races so far.
Edwards, known for his signature back flip from his car after he wins a race, has only one victory this season. But his 17 top-five finishes have kept him atop the standings. Kevin Harvick is third, 33 points behind Edwards, followed by Matt Kenseth, who's 38 points back.
Stewart will start eighth and Edwards ninth in Sunday's race. Kenseth won the pole position in qualifying Saturday with a lap averaging 137.101 mph on the newly repaved PIR track.
Edwards, 32, finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the title fight in 2008, a year in which Edwards won a series-high nine races.
"2008 was such an amazing year, and for us to have lost the championship, I learned a lot from that one," Edwards said.
No matter what happens Sunday, Edwards is convinced this Chase will go down to the wire.
"I feel this thing is not going to be over until the last lap" at Homestead-Miami, he said. "I just have a feeling about this one for some reason."
One of the main sponsors on Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet is Office Depot, which once sponsored the No. 99 Ford that Edwards drives for Roush Fenway Racing. But that wasn't the only irony this weekend.
The other involved Joe Gibbs, the NFL Hall of Fame coach and team owner who was pressed into damage control after his driver, Kyle Busch, intentionally wrecked another driver a week earlier.
Busch was heavily penalized by NASCAR and his main sponsor, M&M's, dropped its backing of Busch's car for the last two races this year.
Minutes after Gibbs sat with Busch while Busch apologized for his actions, Stewart announced that he'd signed Outback Steakhouse, his third new sponsor in recent weeks, for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Before forming the team, the temperamental Stewart drove the No. 20 Home Depot car for Gibbs. And just as he did with Busch, Gibbs had to shepherd Stewart past controversies involving Stewart's public outbursts, such as when he punched a photographer in 2002.
Gibbs no doubt also helped Stewart understand what Busch is enduring.
"You have that passion [for racing] and it's sometimes hard to put it in your pocket when you need to," Stewart said. "There is a line that they [sponsors] will draw and they will tell you when enough is enough."