Story and photo by: Drew Hierwarter
The finale of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will most likely be remembered as the most exciting and closest championship drive in the sport’s history!
In recent years it had become common for the points leading drivers to come into the final race with somewhat of a cushion. Needing only to finish in something like 15th or better and the title was secure. The perfect example was Ricky Stenhouse in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday. So great was his point lead coming into the race that he only needed to finish better than 37th! And that was taken care of when, early in the race, six cars dropped out leaving only 37 still on the track. Stenhouse couldn’t lose. In his five championship winning years, Jimmie Johnson never won the last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway because he never had to!
But things were very different on the Cup side at Homestead this year. After 35 races over a span of nine months, the two championship contending drivers, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, were separated by a mere 3 points with Edwards holding that miniscule advantage. There was only one way for Stewart to secure his third championship; win the race. Nothing else would get the job done. If Stewart finished second and Carl Edwards was third, Edwards wins.
Tony Stewart; “We said all week — we just go out and win the race, we don’t have to worry about what he (Edwards) did, and that’s what we did.”
And win it he did, but it was not easy. Again and again he lost valuable track position and had to come from the back. There was the debris that punctured the grill screen and by his own admission, “. . .was a miracle . . .” that it didn’t hit the radiator. But the repairs needed put him back on the track in 40th place. Then there were two slow pit stops and almost running out of fuel on a third that, once again, placed Stewart deep in the field for the restart.
All told he had to pass 118 cars to get to the lead for the final 30+ laps. He was especially aggressive on restarts, at one point passing six cars in just two laps. He admitted to scaring himself a couple of times.
For years the fans have been asking NASCAR to design a points system that places more emphasis on winning. And while consistency was still important, at the end of this race, both Edwards and Stewart were tied with 2403 points. The difference was Stewart’s five wins (all coming during the chase) to Edwards one. Winning was the tie-breaker and made all the difference in crowning this year’s champion!
Tony Stewart has won championships in just about every type of car he has ever driven. Sprint cars, midgets, Silver Crown Cars, Indy cars, and now three times at the pinnacle of the NASCAR world. Only Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon, have won more championships in NASCAR’s premier division.
The last owner/driver to win a championship was Alan Kulwicki who did it in 1992. Kyle Petty, speaking on SPEED’s “Victory Lane” TV show after the race said that, back in the day, an owner/driver was the norm, not the exception like it is today. He then said that, given the way the sport is now, Tony Stewart may be the last owner/driver champion ever!
Stewart is this generation’s A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti, men who can drive, and win, in a wide variety of types of cars and styles of racing and he summed up the year and the final race this way; “If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what will.”
I couldn’t agree more.