HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Three months after declaring himself out of title contention, Tony Stewart is the 2011 Sprint Cup champion.
Trailing Carl Edwards by three points going into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart is believed to be the first driver in NASCAR's six-decade history to claim the championship in come-from-behind fashion by winning the final race of the season.
In truly one of the great championship battles of all time – and the closest in NASCAR history – Stewart and Edwards ran 1-2 over the final 30 laps of the 2011 season. It was a match race in the truest sense: whoever finished in front would be the champ.
Though Edwards led the most laps in the race, he could not catch Stewart, who completed a miraculous championship run by winning five of the 10 Chase races. Those wins proved to be the difference. The two actually earned the exact same amount of championship points, but Stewart earned the tie-breaker based on his five wins to Edwards' one.
It's the third championship for Stewart, who won in 2002 and 2005, and puts an end to Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as Sprint Cup champion.
"I got this!" Stewart screamed over his radio as he crossed the finish line. "You guys are awesome!"
Stewart's was a tale of two seasons. He didn't record a single win in the 26-race regular season, qualified ninth in the 12-driver Chase field and in August told a live television audience he didn't deserve a spot in the Chase.
"I will be perfectly honest," Stewart said following the Pure Michigan 400 on Aug. 21, "we're wasting one of those top-12 spots right now."
Yet, going into Sunday's race Stewart had never been more confident. The turnaround started with a third-place run at Atlanta on Sept. 6. Two weeks later, he opened the Chase with a win at Chicagoland Speedway, then backed that up with another win six days after that.
With two wins boosting his morale, gone was the self-deprecating Smoke, replaced by the steely veteran who has a knack for tracking down his prey, in this case a third championship trophy. He offset a pair of subpar performances in the middle part of the Chase with two more wins at Martinsville and Texas, becoming the first driver to win five races in a single Chase.
[Slideshow: Images from the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead]
He would have run away with the title had it not been for Edwards' relentless presence in the top 10. Only once in 10 races did Edwards finish lower than ninth, and that was an 11th-place run at Martinsville. Living on a steady diet of seconds and thirds, Edwards took the points lead with six races to go and from there forced the other 11 drivers to be at their best every week. Only Stewart could hang with him.
Johnson, defending an unprecedented string of five consecutive Cup championships, was off from the very beginning, running out of gas on the last lap of the Chase opener at Chicagoland. A wreck four races later at Charlotte put him in an almost insurmountable hole and he was officially eliminated from contention following the penultimate race of the Chase last Sunday at Phoenix.
"There are little things that keep playing through my mind," Johnson said Friday inside the media center at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where each of the last five years he'd come to talk about winning, not losing. "The last time I was sitting at this table, sitting here on top of the world, with just winning my fifth. Some of those little parts of last year bleeding over into here and looking at those experiences and not necessarily emotional, just thinking about it, like, 'WOW, it really is over.' Disappointed that it is over but very proud at what this team has done."
As for the others, one by one they slipped out of contention.
Jeff Gordon, a favorite going into the Chase, never mounted much of a charge. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were in the thick of the hunt until a wreck at Talladega took them out. Matt Kenseth held strong until he ran into trouble (in the name of Brian Vickers) at Martinsville. And Brad Keselowski, the surprise of the season, stayed in contention until he had an issue at Texas.
As the other contenders fell to the wayside, Edwards and Stewart drew closer and closer. They finished 1-2 at Texas, with Stewart claiming the win, then 2-3 the next week at Phoenix, this time with Edwards in front.
That set up the showdown in South Florida where they arrived with just three points separating them – the third-closest points differential going into the final race in the history of the sport.
In a news conference leading up to the finale, both drivers claimed the advantage – Stewart based on how hot he'd been over the previous nine races, Edwards on his consistency throughout the entire season. They did, however, agree on one thing: Whoever emerged the victor would be the winner of an epic battle.
"I'm not afraid to admit right here in front of the world and everybody, I'm going to be proud because of how good of a racecar driver he is and the champion that he is," Edwards said. "I'm going to be more proud to be able to beat him if that's what happens."
Over the 10-race Chase, Edwards posted a 4.9 average – the best in the eight-year history of NASCAR's playoff. That would have been good enough to win every Chase but one – this one.
For the first 26 races of the season, Stewart was mediocre. But over the final 10, he was better than anyone. Now, he's one of only nine drivers to win three Cup championships.
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