In what turned into one of the most-compelling, certainly the closest, season finales in Sprint Cup Series history, Stewart completed his improbable drive to his third championship by winning the Ford 400.
NASCAR usually has two stages for the final race – one for the newly-crowned series champion, the other for the race winner.
Stewart won both. Barely.
The month-long battle between Stewart and Carl Edwards might be remembered for generations. One beat the other by only one spot in each of the final three races. They did it again Sunday to finish tied in the point standings. Stewart won the championship tiebreaker with more victories, 5-1.
Stewart has played from behind since the season-opening Daytona 500. Sunday’s win marked the first time all season Stewart led the standings.
Edwards took a three-point lead into the final race of the season. He started on the pole and led the most laps and finished second in the race.
Stewart was just a little better. The three-point bonus for winning Sunday gave Stewart the tie – and the championship. It also made him a championship car owner.
“If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles, I don’t know what is,” Stewart said after joining Lee Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson as a three-time Sprint Cup Series champions.
Edwards was stunned his very best wasn’t good enough. He was the first to approach Stewart as he pulled into Victory Lane.
“That’s as hard as I can drive,” Edwards said. “It’s important to give Tony the credit. I’ll go home and work to make it harder on him next year. This night is about Tony Stewart. They rose to the occasion. My guys did a great job. That’s as hard as I can drive. I just hope everybody’s proud of our effort. I wish I had that trophy, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
“If we get in this position next year, they better look out. That’s my maximum effort. Tony beat it.
“I’d compete with him in just about anything to break this tie.”
Edwards led six times for a total of 119 laps. Stewart led four times for a 65 laps. The difference is Stewart led the final 35.
Stewart was third in a restart with 37 laps to go and Edwards was fifth. Stewart got the quicker jump, pushing out to the lead 35 laps from the finish line. From there he drove away to a 75-yard win. Three times earlier in the race he forced four-wide traffic trying to get a big jump on restarts. He got track position with his quick starts, and he was able to play that into a championship.
“That shows how bad I wanted to win this thing,” Stewart said. “We couldn’t leave it on the table.”
Edwards started on the pole and he kept his far out front for 87 of the first 109 laps until the race was stopped by a rain shower. By then there was drama for both championship contenders and their motor programs.
Marcos Ambrose and David Ragan both lost engines early in the race. Roush Fenway Racing built their motors, as well as Edwards’. Jimmie Johnson was on pit road with his hood up when the red flag waved. Stewart’s engines came from Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Stewart also had a problem on the third lap when Kurt Busch’s transmission broke. A piece of debris punched a hole in Stewart’s front grille, and he dropped to 40th place after making two pit stops for repairs. It didn’t take him long to get back in the top 10.
Edwards was leading at the red flag; Stewart was fifth.
On the restart following a 1-hour, 14-second delay, Edwards was trapped behind the Chevrolet driven by Kevin Harvick and that allowed Stewart, also in a Chevrolet, to get in front of Edwards for the first time on Lap 117.
Stewart had two slow pit stops at mid-race, including one that dropped him from the lead to 11th-place when there was a problem changing his right-rear tire on Lap 158.
Stewart’s biggest break came with the third shower that put the field under caution for 17 laps. He was out of pit sequence with everyone else with a fuel mileage gamble, but the rain allowed him to re-gain his track position when most of the lead-lap cars stopped for gas while it rained.
Without the rain – which was the final caution period of the race – Stewart might not have been able to make up lost ground by the gamble.
“I’m telling you it’s been a tough, tough summer and a tough fall for us and you’ve got to believe in something and the man upstairs held off the rain long enough for us to get the job done,” Stewart said.
Edwards was proud of his effort in the Chase for the Championship.
“It’s been a true test; it’s been a battle and I feel like I passed,” Edwards said. “The way it turned into this man-to-man battle was amazing. That shouldn’t happen. That is the least-probable outcome. I was prepared for anything. If there wasn’t pressure, there wouldn’t be any diamonds.