Stewart Is The Champion And Forever A Part Of NASCAR Lore
It was, without a doubt, the greatest championship finish in NASCAR’s history. Believe me, that is not an understatement.
It was excruciatingly close – so close, in fact, that the 2011 Sprint Cup champion did not earn any more points than the runnerup.
It was the first time in NASCAR’s history that a championship was decided by a tiebreaker method, in this case, one driver took the crown because he had more victories than the other over the season.
Going into the title showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there was only one way either contender could be assured of the title regardless of what the other did. He had to win the race.
In the end, that’s what the champion did. He held off a challenger who relentlessly pursued him over the closing laps in a dramatic, exciting finish.
Tony Stewart, the 2011 Sprint Cup champion, is now and forever a part of NASCAR lore. He earned his title not only because he won the Ford 400, but also because he overcame numerous obstacles in the race to do so.
Once, due to a hole slugged into his grille by debris, he was in 40th place after lengthy stays in the pits. Yes, it was early in the race, but it appeared he may well have lost any hope to supplant Carl Edwards, the driver who came into the race first in points, only three in front of Stewart.
But it a remarkable display of perseverance, Stewart not only survived, he rose to become Edwards’ most serious challenger.
Over the course of the race, Stewart, in a gritty effort to overcome what had befallen him, by one count passed 116 cars.
Edwards, meanwhile, did what he had always done throughout the 10-race Chase. He was rigidly consistent. The Roush Fenway Racing driver, who had not finished worse than 11th in the “playoffs,” started from the pole and dominated, leading the most laps and earning a bonus point for doing so.
However, as notable as that accomplishment was, he still had to finish ahead of Stewart to assure himself the championship.
As much drama as the race contained – which included a stoppage that lasted for over an hour due to rain - there was none more intense than that with 56 of 267 laps remaining.
Edwards, the leader, pitted under green and Stewart inherited the point. He stayed out longer than anyone anticipated, following crew chief Darien Grubbs’ strategy, which dictated that if Stewart spent as much fuel as he could at that time, he could make it the rest of the way without another stop.
Stewart finally pitted, out of fuel, with 57 laps to go. He had the edge. Edwards was going to come up short on gas mileage.
But on lap 214, rain again hit the track and the race was put under caution for an extended period. That allowed Edwards to preserve fuel and as a result he, too, could finish the race without re-pitting.
It was now going to be a chase to the checkered flag. When the race restarted Stewart was fourth and Edwards sixth.
Less than one lap later Stewart moved into the lead. Edwards took second place four laps later and the fight was on.
Remarkably, while running one-two, the title contenders were tied in points. Each had 2,403, which made Edwards’ mission very clear. He had to beat Stewart. Nothing else would do because his rival, owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, had won more races in 2011.
Stewart’s five victories had come in the Chase, a remarkable achievement given that he hadn’t won in the 26 races prior to its start and once declared his team unworthy of championship contention.
Edwards, who had only one victory to his credit, made a noble effort. He closed to within one second of Stewart but it wasn’t enough – perhaps because he had only two fresh tires to Stewart’s four. Stewart won by 1.3 seconds.
“That’s all I could do,” said Edwards, who was trying to win his first career title. “I drove the car as hard as I could. I couldn’t drive it any harder. I gave it my best performance.
“Tony beat us fair and square. He and his team did a good job with strategy throughout the race. I did all I could do.
“I hold my head up. I told my wife that if I lost I would go out as the best loser NASCAR has ever had.”
Stewart has now won titles in three different NASCAR eras. His first was a Winston Cup championship in 2002, the second a Nextel Cup crown in 2005 and now, in 2011, it's a Sprint Cup title.
Interestingly, all three of his championships were achieved under three different points systems.
Stewart is the last driver to win a title before Jimmie Johnson began his five-year reign. He’s now the first since its end. Johnson wound up sixth in the final point standings, the first time he’s finished outside the top five in his career.
Stewart is the first driver/owner to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki defeated Bill Elliott by 10 points in 1992 – previously the closest finish in NASCAR history.
He is one of only eight drivers to win three or more championships in a career.
“Oh thank the Lord for this one,” said Stewart, who earlier declared he would relentlessly pursue Edwards until the end. “It’s been a tough summer and a tough fall for us and you’ve got to believe in something; and the man upstairs held this rain off just long enough for us to get this job done.
“We said all week we’d just go out and win the race and we didn’t have to worry about what he (Edwards) did and that’s what we did.
“His guys have done an awesome job all year and my buddy Ricky Stenhouse won the Nationwide Championship yesterday and Jack (Roush, owner) got the Owner’s Championship so I didn’t feel bad taking this one away from them tonight.
“But Carl is a great competitor and a great guy and we’ve been giving him a rough time this week. But it was all in an effort to do what we did tonight and win this championship.
“He was the first one to me. And 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.’ So that just shows how much class he’s got.
“If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what will.”
To be honest, probably nothing will.
There have been a few dramatically close championship finishes in NASCAR.
But on Nov. 20, 2011, those who were fortunate enough to see what transpired at Homestead-Miami were privileged to witness an event that takes its place in stock car racing history.