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.