If truth be told, not every race in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been all that gripping. Too many fuel mileage races, too many rain delays, too much in the way of drafting antics. But the season finale Ford 400 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway wiped away any such memories, with one of the most gripping and exciting climaxes to a championship that we've seen.
Stewart had to recover from early problems to fight his way from the back of the grid, then gambled on a risky fuel strategy that was instantly upset by late rain that threw all the plans out of the window and left him in a head-to-head battle with Carl Edwards for the race victory - with the winner also collecting the 2011 championship.
In the end, Stewart was simply too strong for Edwards. But it took the drive of Smoke's life to put the #14 into victory lane and to get his name etched into the Sprint Cup trophy, and he drove with a demonic intent he'd never shown before to become a three-time NASCAR champion.
"I could not be more proud," he said as he celebrated in victory lane with the team that he co-owns with Gene Haas. "Just could not be more proud of our guys and our organization. Everybody: Ryan Newman, my teammate, everybody.
"It's been a tough summer and a tough fall for us and you've got to believe in something," he continued. "The man upstairs held this rain off just long enough for us to get this job done. Thanks to all the fans who stuck it out all weekend here at Homestead. Oh, my! I don't care how long it rains; I'm going to be up all night tonight!"
The pre-race hype had been predictably over the top, promising a final confrontation between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards to put all other such showdowns in the shade. Hyperbole, of course - but for once, the reality didn't let the fans down. Starting from pole position, Carl Edwards had a fairly easy time of it over the opening stint, leading through to the pit stops on lap 34 under a debris caution, but then losing the top spot to Brad Keselowski when his tyre changer slipped on some fuel in the pit box. No matter, Edwards was back in front a dozen laps later and led from there through the next caution (for David Ragan blowing up) and after the next round of pit stops, and was still in front of the race when a rain shower swept in and forced a red flag on lap 110. The stoppage lasted for more than an hour and would eventually mean that the end of the race was pushed into an after-dark floodlit finish.
It had proved to be a less easy time of it for Tony Stewart, however. When he came in for his first pit stop under an early brief rain caution on lap 13, the pit crew found a big hole in the #14's front grille - thought to have been caused by bits dropping off the #22 of Kurt Busch, which had suffered a suspected transmission or drive shaft failure just four laps into the race. It was just as well that this early rain caution lasted a while, because Stewart had to make repeated visits back to pit lane to get the problem sorted out and duly started from the back of the field in 40th place. He was lucky not to be a lap down as well.
“They're going to feel like **** after we kick their ass after this,” Stewart radioed in after this setback, sounding somewhere between crazily confident, outright possessed and borderline insane.
He'd worked his way back up through a dozen positions by the next caution, and once again he needed a lengthy visit to pit road after further crunching the nose on the rear of David Reutimann's car - "They're are going to really
feel worse when we've been to the back twice [and still win],” chipped in Stewart. Repairs done, he was at the back of the field again and spent the next portion of the race working his way up steadily and surely, so that by the time the red flag came out for the long rain delay he had just cracked the top five for the first time in the race.
Edwards might have had the lead, but the irresistible rise of Stewart would have been ringing alarm bells in the #99 camp - as would two Ford engine failures, one from Ragan on lap 83 (admittedly running experimental development parts for 2012) and another for Macros Ambrose. (Greg Biffle would also blow a cylinder in his Ford engine later in the race.) Having his own car blow up would be a cruel way indeed for Edwards to lose the title battle.
At the restart following a post-rain round of pit stops, Kevin Harvick led the field to green on lap 117 ahead of Jeff Gordon, with title rivals Edwards and Stewart now lining up side-by-side behind them. Edwards got bottled up behind a sluggish Harvick - "he's running into us, blocking us, affecting the outcome of the race," Edwards complained about the #29 over the team radio - and Stewart took the opportunity to pounce and take up second position behind new race leader Jeff Gordon. Five laps later, Stewart moved into the lead, and Edwards was soon also past Gordon for second place.
The race was soon under yellow again just past the midway point as Trevor Bayne found the wall. Harvick, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin emerged from pit lane in the lead after opting for two tyres only, with Edwards fourth; Stewart meanwhile had slipped all the way back to ninth place after having some lug nuts sticking and also being cut off by Denny Hamlin on pit road. He briefly lost a couple more spots on the restart on lap 140, too, while Edwards quickly stepped up to second.
Outgoing champion Jimmie Johnson then made an impression on the race by getting tapped into a spin through turn 4 on the very next lap, bringing out the sixth caution even though he succeeded in keeping it off the wall. He was already three laps off the lead after an extended stay on pit road with the hood up for engine problems, and it was certainly a world away from the glories of 2010 for the #48 - a salient reminder that even the most dominant reigns do come to an end at some point.
The next restart saw Martin Truex Jr. jump to the lead, while behind him there was a wild four-wide battle down the frontstretch between Stewart, Harvick, Edwards and Kyle Busch at the culmination of a spectacular six-lap surge to the lead by Stewart. If that display didn't send out a message and shake Edwards and his #99 crew to their core then nothing would.
The track promptly went back to yellow again as Landon Cassill got loose and collected Cole Whitt on the backstretch on lap 153, which also left Trevor Bayne with a blown tyre. That meant another round of pit stops, and Tony Stewart's pit crew suffered a delay caused by a lug nut stuck in the wheel gun that dropped the #14 all the way down to 12th position. Up front it was now Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth taking up the top four spots ahead of Edwards and Truex.
But once again there was no stopping Stewart who was back up to fourth in the blink of an eye as the race got back underway, while Edwards was busy tussling with Truex for second place behind race leader Matt Kenseth. Once past Truex, Edwards then had no trouble with his Roush Fenway team mate and on lap 175 the #99 was back in front - but Stewart was building momentum and moving closer, up into second place on lap 180 and stalking his rival for the lead in what was turning out to be a thrilling championship decider. Crucially, Edwards was back where he felt most comfortable and had the best pace - the clean air of the lead - and he was starting to pull out a vital comfort margin of around 2s over Stewart.
Green flag pit stops loomed as the race came up on the two hundred lap mark, and more importantly everyone was still looking short on fuel to get home on their current pit strategies: Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb was on the radio asking his driver to "do what you can to save fuel", words to chill any racer to the core. "How bad do you need me to save?" responded Stewart, and Grubb confirmed they needed at least ten more laps.
While Stewart stayed out - perhaps hoping for another weather front to move in and curtail the race early - Edwards was in for his pit stop on lap 201. He and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, were concerned about wear and tear on the front right tyre after an earlier set had proved ready to blow following a similarly lengthy stint, but Osborne assured his man that there was nothing untoward with this latest set, that he should forget about it and just get on with the race - and reminded him that they would still need a final stop before the end, the Ford engine being notably more fuel-hungry than Stewart's Chevy.
Edwards put his foot down: although briefly a lap down on Stewart after his pit stop, Edwards' fresher tyres and Stewart's fuel conservation meant that it was easy for the #99 to blow past the #14 to get back onto the lead lap. Stewart pushed his current fuel as far as possible before pitting on lap 211, cruising in on fumes, which handed the lead back to Edwards.
Just as this happened, a caution came out with 54 laps to go to the finish - it was the weather front that Stewart had been trying to hold out for, and now there was light rain in turns 3 and 4. It was a game changer, and Edwards and Stewart both immediately hit pit road to take on as much fuel as possible. Even so, Edwards was told he was still five laps short of making it to the end; but this new top-up gave Grubb the confidence to assure his man that the #14 was okay: "We're right on the number. Your competitor is about four laps short."
It was in every sense the moment that could decide the entire championship, one way or the other. How long the rain would continue - and whether there would be any more showers - was now a major factor in how many cars could make it to the end, and whether Edwards could hold on to take the title or whether Tony Stewart was going to emerge victorious on fuel alone. And the rain was proving longer and heavier than anyone had expected, which was tiling it slowly in Edwards' favour ...
When the rain cleared and racing resumed, there were just 38 laps remaining: and Edwards was told that he was good for the full race distance. But he was still in fifth, two spots behind Stewart who had come in with a fuller tank and who had needed less time refuelling on pit lane.
The race leaders were Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, with Stewart ahead of Clint Bowyer and Edwards. Stewart immediately went three-wide with the front row at the restart on lap 230: Kyle Busch - rather understandably, given his recent penalty problems and the threat of indefinite suspension hanging over his head if he puts a wheel wrong - backed out and wanted no further part in this, leaving Stewart to take the lead ahead of Keselowski and Edwards. Edwards soon got underneath the blue deuce for second, and once again the two Chase contenders were leading the race with winner takes all. As season deciders go, it couldn't have been scripted any better.
Stewart was pulling away in front; Edwards seemed to have no reply to Smoke's astonishing, near-crazed performance, but as the race entered its final ten laps he put everything he had into slashing Stewart's lead. He pulled some of it back but then started to hit lapped traffic, and the moment was lost. He was out of time: "He's the champion. That's all I got. That's as hard as I can drive. That is everything I got," said Edwards as the race reached its end.
The white flag came out, and Smoke screamed past it, completed another 1.5 mile lap and arrived at the chequered flag: Tony Stewart had won the race and with it the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship, bringing the Jimmie Johnson era to an end. He had done it by the narrowest possible margin: he and Edwards ended up tied on championship points after 36 races and nine long months, and it had ultimately come down to the number of wins during the season as a tiebreaker. These five wins that Stewart had secured in the post season - half the total number of races in the Chase - had been the clincher.
“I just have to say congratulations to Tony. Those guys earned it," conceded an ever-gracious Edwards in defeat. "They won half the races in the Chase and he is the champion and did a good job ... We pushed him to the end and that is all I got," he added. "I think it is really important to give Tony the credit. Those guys did a good job."
"I told my wife, 'If I can't win this thing, I am going to be the best loser NASCAR has ever had and I am going to try really hard to keep my head up and know we will be just as hard to beat next year and the year after that.," he said. "I just hope everybody is proud of the way we performed and our effort."
It was by any standards a sensational race to end the season - by common consensus it will be regarded as one of NASCAR's all-time highs for many years to come. When NASCAR's Director of Competition John Darby came on the road to congratulate him, Stewart shot back: "Did I make it exciting enough?", to which Darby dryly replied: "Well, you got my attention."
Stewart now becomes a thee-time NASCAR Cup champion alongside the likes of Darrell Waltrip, Lee Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. He's also the only man to have won titles in both the pre-Chase and Chase formats. His last championship came in 2005, since when the championship has seen five back-to-back titles for Jimmie Johnson, so Stewart's success today means that he neatly "bookends" the Johnson era.
It was a neat touch of symmetry. One might even have felt that such poetry was pre-ordained. Certainly in his own mind, Tony Stewart arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway already convinced in his mind that the race and title was his by rights and that all he had to do was go out there and make it happen: and he did exactly that.
Full race results and times
Full Sprint Cup championship points standings