After struggling in the first 26 races in the regular season, Tony Stewart’s team came alive in the Chase for the Championship with five wins, including the season-finale Ford 400 last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He finished tied with Carl Edwards in the standings, but he won the championship in a tiebreaker – Stewart had four more wins than Edwards.
There were several important moments for Stewart in the playoffs, and he seemed to build confidence and momentum with each step.
Here’s a look back at the significant moments in Stewart’s remarkable championship:
• Four races into the Chase, Stewart told crew chief Darian Grubb he would be fired at the end of the season. Instead of giving up, both used that as a personal driving force during the final six weeks.
Grubb worked harder to prove Stewart was making a mistake. Stewart drove harder to prove his worth.
The championship developed in spite of their strained relationship because everyone rallied around either Grubb or Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“But the team rallying around when we had bad days and never giving up, and then Tony never giving up either,” Grubb said.
Stewart and Grubb will spend the next two weeks making official appearances for NASCAR until they receive money and trophies on Dec. 2 at the awards banquet at Las Vegas. After that, they will go in different directions.
By making the final six races a personal battle of wills, both Stewart and Grubb were determined to prove they weren’t the weakest link during the first 26 races. And in the process, they both proved their strength.
• With Edwards finishing second at Homestead-Miami, the only way Stewart could win the championship was to win the race.
While that was a huge step in the championship picture, the biggest actually came Oct. 30 at Martinsville Speedway.
Stewart used the outside lane on a restart with three laps remaining to beat Jimmie Johnson at the half-mile short track. The outside lane is considered the toughest and Johnson is one of the best drivers in the track’s history with six wins.
Like so many other wins in his career, Stewart did the impossible by not backing down.
“I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside,” Stewart said.
If Stewart had settled for second place, Edwards would be the Sprint Cup Series champion. The victory earned Stewart three bonus points and he needed every one of them.
The win also triggered a new wave of confidence, and it started a three-week verbal assault on Edwards’ lead.
“He better be worried, that’s all I have to say,” Stewart said after the win. “He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
• Stewart’s favorite driver is A.J. Foyt. That’s why he switched to No. 14 when he formed Stewart-Haas Racing.
He drove like Foyt down the stretch, pushing his car harder than ever.
In the process he found a new level of talent by not backing down to any challenge.
“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Stewart said. “If I crash this thing on the way to the front, so be it.”
Foyt was impressed.
“He had to win it to win the championship and I think Tony drove the best race of his life,” he said. “It was great to see the 14 win again. I am real proud of him.”
• While Johnson’s five-year reign as the series champion ended, Hendrick Motorsports continued to stay on a roll.
Hendrick not only built the cars and engines for all five of Johnson’s championships, it was responsible for Stewart’s fleet of cars.
“The Hendrick chassis and engine has been really good, but what we do to it after we get it is even better,” Grubb said.
The Hendrick organization has proven to be the best in the playoffs, and it certainly proved it again this year.
Counting Stewart’s five wins, Hendrick had six winners in the 10-race Chase this year.
And since the Chase started in 2004, Hendrick equipment has been to Victory Lane 33 times in 80 races.