By Jerry Bonkowski
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – NASCAR hoped for an exciting finish in Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
What it got was nothing short of a race for the ages.
Tony Stewart twice rallied back after falling to near the rear of the field, waited out a lengthy rain delay (and a shorter one later on), and then squeezed out every last drop of fuel in one of the biggest gambles the sport has seen in a long time to not only win the race, but more importantly, to capture his third Sprint Cup championship in the last 10 seasons.
"If someone said (before the Chase) we were going to win a race or five races, I would have lost every bet," Stewart said. "We were like the Bad News Bears. We were the team no one thought we had a shot at the beginning (of the Chase). We battled adversity and just kept fighting."
Stewart and Carl Edwards, who finished second in both the race and the championship battle, actually tied in the final points standings, but Stewart wound up earning the title by virtue of the first tie-breaker: overall number of wins this season. His five wins – all which came in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – eclipsed Edwards' one solo triumph from early in the season.
"If this wasn't an exciting race and one of the most exciting championships you've ever seen, you need to get yourself to the doctor right away to see what's wrong with you," Stewart said. "It was a David and Goliath battle to the end. I don't know how it gets better than this."
Added Edwards, "Of all the circumstances that could happen, this was the least probable outcome."
Winning half the Chase races "is pretty damn impressive," said winning crew chief Darian Grubb. "Tony just went out and won the championship."
Stewart, who passed an uncanny 118 cars Sunday in his back-and-forth route to the title, became the first driver to win a championship by virtue of a tiebreaker since NASCAR first instituted a points system in 1975. He also is the seventh driver in Cup annals to win the championship in the season's final race.
"I feel like I passed half the cars in the state of Florida," Stewart said. "This is definitely one of the greatest races of my life."
In addition, Stewart became the first driver-owner to win a Cup championship since the late Alan Kulwicki did so in 1992. Stewart also becomes only the ninth driver in Cup annals to win three or more championships.
But perhaps the most important factor of all: Stewart not only was the last driver to win a Cup championship prior to Jimmie Johnson's five consecutive titles, but he also became the driver to finally snap Johnson's reign.
"I think half the drivers in the garage wondered if they'd ever have a chance to win a championship again," Stewart said.
Even leading the most laps in the 267-lap event wasn't enough for Edwards to overcome Stewart, who raced like a man on a mission from the opening green flag to the checkered flag. Every time it looked like the Indiana native was down and out, he bounced back, seemingly even more determined and stronger each time.
"It's so unbelievable," Edwards said. "It was like a movie. … We did the best we could and were one point shy. That's just how it is. It's neat to be a part of something like this, but it's not neat to lose."
Not only was he gracious in defeat, Edwards also was incredibly calm just moments after conceding the title to Stewart.
"This is me, I'm not going to tear the door off my motor home," Edwards said. "My true feeling in my heart and gut is we didn't win. That would have been a spectacular result. But we ran some of the best races we've ever run in this Chase. I'm very proud of that."
Even Stewart, who is not easily impressed, was moved by Edwards being the first one to congratulate him before he climbed out of his car in victory lane.
"He said, 'Promise me one thing, that you'll enjoy this and I hope it's you and me in this position again next year,'" Stewart said of Edwards. "That just shows how much class he's got. He's a great guy."
Incredibly, even without winning a race in the Chase, Edwards uncanny consistency set a Chase-record average finish of 4.9 in the playoffs' 10 races (Stewart's average finish in the Chase was 6.3).
What turned out to be the winning move occurred on lap 212 when Stewart gave up the lead at the time to pit for his final load of fuel and four tires. The move was nothing short of sheer genius by Grubb, who had mathematically determined that Stewart could go 55 laps on one last full tank of fuel.
With that final stop, and if the race stayed green the rest of the way, Stewart needed just to conserve the equivalent of one lap worth of fuel to be just enough to get him to the finish line.
And then, just three laps later, came the second rainstorm of the day – albeit a very brief one. But with cars circling the track slowly for 17 laps of caution, Stewart saved the equivalent of over one gallon to the good, meaning he ultimately wound up with enough fuel for five more laps than would be needed.
"I didn't ask why or question what the plan was," Stewart said. "I just drove. … It was the call of the race and the Chase."
Although it caused him to give up the lead, Edwards' crew chief, Bob Osborne, called his driver in during the rain delay caution for fuel and just two right-side tires in hopes that Edwards could rally back to catch and pass Stewart one last time.
Edwards got by Brad Keselowski with 32 laps left to take second place, leaving only Stewart in front of him. All that was left was to beat him to the finish line.
Unfortunately, Edwards' dream of his first career Cup championship disappeared as Stewart kept his challenger in his rearview mirror for the remainder of the thrilling event.
"I gave it everything I could," Edwards said. "I had nothing left."
Stewart, who previously won Cup championships in 2002 and 2005, regained the lead for good from Keselowski on lap 232 and kept his pedal to the metal the rest of the way. Not having to worry about conserving fuel or tires now, he mashed the gas and kept his foot down all the way around for the final 35 laps around the 1.5-mile racetrack en route to his 44th career Cup win.
Stewart came into the race displaying an uncanny confidence. He not only beat Edwards in trash-talking, he continued to maintain – even during the rain delays in Sunday's race – that he was still going to win. To say he was bound and determined is an understatement, as he could not be deterred in winning his third win in 13 races at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Edwards, who had won two of the previous three season-ending races at Homestead, did everything he could Sunday, at some points almost losing control of his car, but still fell short.
"I drove to the edge and beyond, and that was all I had," Edwards said. "As painful as this is, I know we have the opportunity to go to Daytona (in February) and start it all over again.
"I told my wife that if I can't win this thing, I'll be the best loser NASCAR has ever had, so I'm going to try very hard to keep my head up and know that we'll go next year and be just as hard to beat next year."
When it all came down to the final lap, like the other 41 drivers in the race, the 80,000-plus fans in the stands and the millions that watched the race worldwide, Edwards could do nothing but helplessly watch as Stewart took the win and the thing they both have been chasing since the season-opening Daytona 500: the championship.
"I was very, very impressed with Tony," Edwards said. "For all the talk and chest pounding, I could see he was nervous, too. … They showed a lot of mental toughness to watch us go lead the first half of this race and not panic."
Even those drivers that didn't factor in the win or championship were awed at the outcome: "It was cool to watch," said Martin Truex Jr., who finished third in the race. "It was uncanny. I wish I was both of them."
NOTES: Ironically, Grubb will likely not return to his position as crew chief for next season, having been told five weeks ago by Stewart that he would not remain in that role next season. "We'll see if things change now; right now, we just want to celebrate this," said Grubb, who said he's not even sure if he wants to stay with the organization, even with Sunday's triumph.