Chase finale nothing short of a classic
Posted November 21, 2011
Updated February 10, 2012
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Rarely can NASCAR fans say they were witness to one of the greatest races ever.
But they can most definitely say that now – after either having watched in-person or on TV – Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
I challenge anyone to put forth another race in NASCAR's 60-plus year history that even comes close to having the drama, pathos, excitement and sheer jubilation that Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards produced in what many are already calling an instant classic.
Even though Stewart won and Edwards lost, they both were ultimately winners with the battle they engaged in. If you missed the race, you missed a battle that was nothing short of epic. They finished 1-2 in the race and 1-2 in the final standings – and what a story that was.
For the first time in NASCAR history – and that includes the eras of legendary greats like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, and even the just-completed five-year reign of Jimmie Johnson – the championship came down to a dead heat that had to be settled by a tie-breaker.
And that ultimate tiebreaker came down to wins this season: Stewart's five wins – all during the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – to just one win earlier in the year by Edwards.
"If this wasn't an exciting race and one of the most exciting championships you've ever seen, you need to get yourself to the doctor right away to see what's wrong with you," Stewart said. "It was a David and Goliath battle to the end. I don't know how it gets better than this."
Added Edwards, "Of all the circumstances that could happen, this was the least probable outcome."
Indeed, the entire race was improbable, particularly for Stewart. He started out with a hole in his car's grill after debris put a hole in it during the opening laps, bounced off another car in a pit road skirmish, had a lug nut issue on a pit stop, fell back to almost the rear of the field twice, and then made one of the biggest gambles in pit strategy in his career – going the final 55 laps on one tank of fuel – to clinch the win.
Simply put, the now three-time Cup champion (2002, 2005 and 2011) never gave up. He kept digging deeper and deeper into his bag of tricks. And perhaps most importantly, Stewart lived up to all the trash talking he did with Edwards in the week leading up to Sunday's race.
It wasn't easy, but Stewart made like Babe Ruth, predicting he'd hit a homer to win the championship, and then going out and doing it. In addition, he made several other significant achievements:
* He became the first driver to win half of the 10 Chase races.
* He became the seventh driver in Cup annals to win the championship in the season's final race, and the first since Jeff Gordon aced the title in the last race of the 1998 season.
* He became the first driver-owner to win a Cup championship since the late Alan Kulwicki did so in 1992.
* He became only the ninth driver in Cup annals to win three or more championships.
* But perhaps the most important factor of all: Stewart not only was the last driver to win a Cup championship prior to Jimmie Johnson's five consecutive titles, but will now forever be known as the man who finally ended Johnson's reign.
"I think half the drivers in the garage wondered if they'd ever have a chance to win a championship again," Stewart said.
In a race that featured 26 lead changes by 15 different cars, Stewart passed 118 cars during the 267-lap, 400-mile event. If that didn't show determination, nothing did.
"I feel like I passed half the cars in the state of Florida," Stewart said. "This is definitely one of the greatest races of my life."
It was a far cry from mid-August when Stewart said he had no business making the Chase, given how his year had gone up to that point. But that quip became a rallying cry for his team, and Stewart not only made the Chase, he wound up winning the whole thing.
"If someone said (before the Chase) we were going to win a race or five races, I would have lost every bet," Stewart said. "We were like the Bad News Bears. We were the team no one thought had a shot at the beginning (of the Chase). We battled adversity and just kept fighting."
Although saddened that he missed out on his second chance to win his first career Cup championship, Edwards, who finished runner-up to Johnson in 2008, knew that he had just taken part in the race of his life.
"It's so unbelievable," Edwards said. "It was like a movie. … We did the best we could and were one point shy. That's just how it is. It's neat to be a part of something like this, but it's not neat to lose."
But Edwards, who even without a win in the final 10 races still set a Chase record for consistency with a 4.9 average finish (Stewart's average Chase finish was 6.3), has nothing to be ashamed of. He proved to be a most noble opponent, giving Stewart one of the greatest challenges he's ever had in a race and proved most gracious in defeat.
"I gave it everything I could," Edwards said. "I had nothing left."
Even Stewart, who is not easily impressed, was moved by Edwards being the first one to congratulate him before he climbed out of his car in victory lane.
"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,'" Stewart said of Edwards. "That just shows how much class he's got. He's a great guy."
In earning his 44th career Cup victory, Stewart set the stage for the exciting finish by taking the lead back from Brad Keselowski on lap 232 and paced the rest of the field to the checkered flag 35 laps later.
Edwards gave it all he had, but in the end, he could do little but watch Stewart take the checkered flag. Still, having one of the most optimistic personalities in the sport, Edwards is already trying to figure out a way of turning Sunday's loss into a positive next season.
"I drove to the edge and beyond, and that was all I had," Edwards said. "As painful as this is, I know we have the opportunity to go to Daytona (in February) and start it all over again.
"I told my wife that 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."
With the build-up all week leading up to the race, all the twists and turns that took place during the 400-mile event, and then the way things ultimately played out, for those of you who were at the race or watched it in-person, you know you watched two of the best give their absolute best in arguably the best race and season finish we'll ever see in our lifetimes.
It doesn't get any better than that.