Hot/Not: Little decisions were the huge factors at Homestead

Decisions were the key to Tony Stewart's title, and they almost put Carl Edwards in his shoes. Join us as we discuss those and the highs and lows from an epic NASCAR season finale.

HOT: That damn tropical rain, first reported three laps before, had returned to Homestead-Miami Speedway just in time to throw the most inopportune wrench in the makings of NASCAR's greatest season finale.

Drivers hollered over their in-car radios and track spotters increased their urgency. The track was quickly too wet for the 3,400-pound stock cars, the traction gone.

And so, on Lap 214 with just over 80 miles left in the Ford 400 and a narrow three points distancing championship contenders, the yellow lights flashed and the caution flag waved. Carl Edwards, one of the prizefighters, held the lead and stood to win the Sprint Cup championship if the rain didn't leave. Behind him, decidedly now thanks to a pit call to stretch fuel mileage while losing time, was Tony Stewart.

It was Stewart who had chased Edwards all day, courtesy of two setbacks and a No. 99 team that showed up at Homestead ready to fight. Edwards wouldn't cross the start/finish line lower than ninth all day.

The fuel decision — made by previously-fired crew chief Darian Grubb — could have set Stewart on course for the highest of highs or the highest of lows. Stewart, just before the caution waved, was scored as low as 15th. He had coasted to pit road on fumes, took four tires and enough fuel before he nearly stalled it as he rejoined the track.

Edwards, though, had heeded a decision from his team to pit much earlier than Stewart and thus faced a dilemma himself. Sure, he had the track position — had the lead — but he would run out of fuel before the race ended. Stewart hoped to not stop again.

So, Edwards and his crew chief Bob Osbourne hemmed and hawed, debated and then called the No. 99 to pit road on Lap 214. Two fresh right-side tires — not four — replaced 12-lap old ones while enough fuel to finish went in the tank. Edwards, down and away, rejoined the slowly circling pack as safety trucks and jet dryers tried to keep the 1.5-mile oval dry.

Taking only half of the available tires moved Edwards back on the track faster than many, but it was a decision the team later debated as a few pesky rain drops fell. Caution lap after caution lap — the period lasted a race high 17 laps — contributed to the second-guessing, but seeing Stewart now in front of him probably added more tension. Stewart had used his four new tires for just a single lap under green. Edwards would be going to battle with two brand new rights and slightly-aged lefts. {ysp:more}

Should they pit again for lefts, Edwards wondered? Nope, he and Osboune said, because the loss of track position would be too great. Twenty-seven cars were left on the lead lap.

The race went green on Lap 231. Stewart and Edwards had moved to the top two spots within just four laps and would do battle for the remaining 32 circuits, Edwards never further than 1.5 seconds back. But he could never close, either.

Was it that Stewart's car was handling better? Or was it the two-tire stop? Both? It's a decision that could have made a difference.

Those championship-altering decisions had been made by Stewart's team throughout the twice rain-soaked event. Stewart, starting 15th, had a jarring moment of bad luck early when a piece of Kurt Busch's transmission cut through the front grille of his Chevrolet.

The team calmly and cooly managed their time on pit road to stay on the lead lap and yet fully fix the problem. Later, Stewart stayed on pit road longer than most again for more repair despite driving from 40th to 27th in 12 laps.

Stewart, more so than Edwards, raced through his share of risky moves and bold decisions on the track. He could have let off when Trevor Bayne scrubbed the wall ahead of him, but instead stayed in the throttle and squeezed around Bayne by inches.

He tried and completed that four-wide pass along the frontstetch on Lap 162 that shot him to seventh, and nearly several other cars.

And every restart saw the No. 14 making much riskier choices than normal — Kyle Busch would have been proud — to pick off spots. It worked, every time. Each and every decision made by Stewart paid off.

And for Edwards, his winning percentage of make-or-break decisions was plenty high enough to take the checkered flag himself — until, maybe, the last one on that final pit stop.

Did taking two tires in the name of track position hurt Edwards' scramble to catch Stewart? It's a question we'll debate forever. We won't debate, however, that both teams made decision after decision on Sunday night with literally everything on the line.

And this time, it was Tony Stewart who got the better — if only by a tiebreaker.

A few other swings and misses from the championship weekend:

HOT: Congratulations to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the 2011 Nationwide Series champion.

HOT: Also, congratulations to Austin Dillon for his 2011 Camping World Truck Series title.

HOT: NASCAR handled the Sunday rain at Homestead perfectly, and any reasoning that they intentionally left the caution out late instead of bringing the red flag over the course is misguided.

NOT: Kurt Busch's finish was unfortunate, but his treatment of ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch while waiting for an interview was completely inappropriate.

HOT: A tip of the cap to Martin Truex Jr. for his third-place run Sunday. Think he'll find some luck next season?

NOT: What happened to Kyle Busch late in the race? He led during the final restart, but dropped to 23rd and a lap down. I'll bet he's ready for 2012.

NEUTRAL: Kasey Kahne showed the best of what Red Bull Racing could be down the stretch. It'll be a shame if that team is really gone forever.

FINAL: I hope you enjoyed Sunday night's race as much as I did. It was great racing, real drama and a pair of incredible drivers. There's not a better way for NASCAR to transition from Jimmie Johnson's incredible reign. 2011 was a great year with an even better finish.

Thank you for enjoying the highs and lows with us!

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