21 November 2011
Stewart's unstoppable charge to glory
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.
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