Homestead comeback completes Chase comeback

November 21st, 2011 by Staff – HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Tony Stewart won the biggest game of winner-take-all in the history of NASCAR.

Rebounding from a succession of setbacks, Stewart took the checkered flag in Sunday’s rain-interrupted Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the Sprint Cup championship in a tiebreaker over race runner-up Carl Edwards.

With four new tires to Edwards’ two — thanks to a strategic gamble that paid off when rain hit the 1.5-mile speedway for the second time on Lap 213 of 267 — Stewart gradually pulled away after a restart on Lap 231 and claimed his third Cup title, bookending the five consecutive championships won by Jimmie Johnson from 2006 to 2010. Stewart also won in 2002.

The victory was Stewart’s fifth of the season — all coming in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup — and the 44th of his career. The bonus points for winning allowed Stewart to make up the three-point lead Edwards held with one event left. Stewart and Edwards ended the Chase tied at the top of the standings, but Stewart claimed the title with five victories this season to Edwards’ one.

Martin Truex Jr. ran third Sunday, followed by Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.

Stewart, who left Joe Gibbs Racing to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, became the first owner-driver to win the title since Alan Kulwicki accomplished the feat in 1992.

“We said all week, [if] we just go out and win the race, we didn’t have to worry about what he did — and that’s what we did,” Stewart said in Victory Lane, as rain pelted the winning team. “If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what will.”

Magnanimous in victory, Stewart turned the page from the relentless ribbing he had given Edwards during the weeks leading up to the finale.

“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 and that’s to win this championship,” Stewart said. “But it shows how classy a guy he is. He was the first one to me over there [to offer congratulations], and he just said, ‘Promise me one thing: You’ll enjoy this, and I hope you and I are in this position again next year.’

“So much class. A great guy.”

Edwards’ average finish in the Chase was 4.9, bettering the record 5.0 Johnson fashioned in winning the 2007 championship — but it wasn’t good enough to win the closest championship in NASCAR history and the first [since position-based scoring was introduced in 1975] in which a driver has come from behind to win the title by winning the final race.

Stewart’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, forced Edwards’ hand late in the race by getting 56 laps out of a tank of fuel. Stewart came to pit road for the last time on Lap 211 — 10 laps later than Edwards — with the option to go the rest of the way without pitting.

When rain hit for the second time on Lap 213. Edwards had to pit under caution but faced the choice of taking four tires and losing track position and possibly the championship, if rain washed out the race. The race went green for the final 37 laps, and Edwards did everything in his power to overtake his rival — but in vain.

“We led the most laps [119], and Tony still managed, you know, him and Darian to do a good job with their strategy,” Edwards said. “That’s all I had at the end. That’s as hard as I can drive. I told my wife, if I can’t win this thing, I’ll be the best loser NASCAR has ever had, so I’m going to try very hard to keep my head up and know that we’ll go next year and be just as hard to beat next year and just as hard the year after that.

“But I just hope everybody is proud of the way we performed and our effort. I appreciate everyone’s support — all the folks that helped me get to this position — and I wish so bad we had that trophy, but just wasn’t meant to be tonight.”

Stewart’s quest for a third title was derailed early when contact with debris — of origin unknown — punched a hole in the grille of his No. 14 Chevrolet the size of a small saucer. Stewart fell to 40th in the running order, while his crew made repairs under caution on Lap 17.

By Lap 32, Stewart had worked his way up to 23rd.

“They’re going to feel like [expletive], after we kick their ass after this,” Stewart radioed during the run through traffic.

Dave Blaney’s spin off Turn 4 on Lap 34 halted the progress of the No. 14 Chevy. Stewart brought the car back to pit road under the yellow, and during a lengthy pit stop, his crew applied tape to hold the grille in place.

Stewart dropped to 38th in the process, but during a long green-flag run that included a cycle of pit stops, Stewart passed car after car, typically powering harder and farther into Turn 3 than any other driver on the track.

“They [Edwards' team] are going to really feel worse when we’ve been to the back twice,” Stewart said.

On Lap 67, Stewart passed Denny Hamlin for 12th.

“Where are we at in this contest?” Stewart asked Grubb.

Told he was running 12th, Stewart replied, “Ah, yes, this is not over!”

True to his word, Stewart continued his charge toward the front of the field, and by the time rain forced a long delay 109 laps into the race, Stewart had climbed to fifth, with only Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Truex between him and Edwards, who picked up his 87th lap led right before the stoppage.

It was the final race in their current cars for several drivers. Mark Martin finished 24th in his last trip in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. David Reutimann ran 18th in his last ride in the No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Clint Bowyer was sixth in his swan song in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. Kasey Kahne came home seventh in his last ride in the No. 4 Red Bull Toyota, and teammate Brian Vickers was 17th in his last turn in the No. 83.

If NASCAR’s electronic fuel injection plans stay on schedule, the Ford 400 will be the last Cup race run with carbureted engines.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th to end his third consecutive winless season and run his drought to 129 races.

Johnson finished 32nd Sunday and finished sixth in the final standings, the first time in his career he has ended a season outside the top five.

One Response

  1. Vinny

    Unbelivable work from Number 14 Smoke’d 99 in the best underdog comeback in racing history!

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