Was this the finest race in NASCAR history?

Jay Busbee
From the Marbles

We always want to believe we're witnesses to history, that the moment in which we exist is one that will live on in memories and history books. (Well, history sites, anyway.) The temptation is to weigh the present more heavily against the past, to value our own times more than those of our parents and grandparents.

We get that, we do. But how can you possibly overestimate the value of a race like the one we all just witnessed? How do you overstate the significance of a race where the two best drivers of the season are the two best drivers on the track? Where one driver comes almost from last place to claim victory, and the other runs so well that there's only one way he could lose ... and does?

Simply put: the 2011 season finale at Homestead, in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards took one another to the very limits of their abilities, was one of the finest races in NASCAR history.

[ Photos: Check out all the best images from Homestead ]

The 1979 Daytona 500 had more influence on NASCAR's growth than this race will. The 1992 Hooters 500 saw the end of one driver's era (Richard Petty), the start of another (Jeff Gordon), and a classic battle for the Winston Cup between Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki. And the 2004 season-ending battle at Homestead saw three drivers battling right into the final turns for a championship, with Kurt Busch holding off Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon despite actually finishing behind them in the race.

Statistically, however, this race trumps them all. This was the first time since points were instituted in NASCAR in 1975 that the season series ended in a tie. And it was also the first time that a driver came from behind to win the championship by winning a race.

From the drop of the green flag, with Edwards leading the first lap, this was a race dominated by the two finest drivers in NASCAR this year. Early on, Stewart faced the potentially season-demolishing problem of a damaged radiator grille, likely due to debris off Kurt Busch's car. But rapid repairs and nonstop optimism from Stewart kept the Office Depot No. 14 team focused on the ultimate goal. "They'll really feel bad when we kick their ass after this," Stewart prophesized, and he would end up being exactly right.

All Chase long this was a battle of supreme consistency versus supreme speed, and this race distilled that battle down to its essence. Edwards, whose 4.9 average finish in the Chase, would have won any Chase before this one, led more laps at Homestead than any driver. But Stewart, who would win half the Chase races this year, passed 118 cars, overcoming the radiator problem and a pit miscue to lead the final laps of the race and set a pace that even the hyperconsistent Edwards couldn't match.

So yes, it's perhaps too early to call this race the best in NASCAR history; the confetti hasn't come down yet and Stewart hasn't slept. But it deserves mention among the very best, and history will look very kindly on both Carl Edwards and 2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. We won't see another race this good, this momentous, anytime soon.

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