|Tony Stewart reacts after winning the Ford 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida, November 20, 2011. Stewart was crowned NASCAR's champion on a tiebreak on Sunday after his magnificent drive won the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway from rival Carl Edwards. (REUTERS/Michael Gora)
HOMESTEAD, FLA. - It was as advertised, a mano a mano NASCAR Sprint Cup championship battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that came down to the final lap in the Ford 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway on Sunday.
Stewart — in what will go down as one of the greatest 10-race runs in NASCAR history — beat Edwards to the big trophy with a win that actually only tied them in points.
But Stewart’s incredible five wins in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship was the tie-breaker.
It was, however, his almost superhuman effort on Sunday at Homestead that sealed the deal for his third Cup championship, his first as a team owner.
Three times during the 400-mile race Stewart found himself in a hole from which lesser race car drivers would never have been able to extricate themselves.
The first was in the first five laps when a piece of transmission from the No. 22 Dodge of Kurt Busch punctured a hole in the front of the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet. Repairs put Stewart back in 40th place.
Twice more Stewart found himself back in the pack when issues on pit lane cost him the lead and twice more he fought back to regain top spot.
It was a fitting end to a championship battle that was waged between Edwards, in the No. 99 Ford, and Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet over the final four Chase races.
And it was the first time since Jeff Gordon did it back in 1998 that the Sprint Cup champion won the race that decided the championship.
Even though Stewart had displayed a pre-race swagger that bordered on mockery of Edwards, he was magnanimous in victory.
“We have been giving him a rough time this week,” Stewart said. “It was all in an effort to do what we did tonight — to win this championship.
“But he is a classy guy. He was the first gut to come over to congratulate me. He said: ‘Promise one thing, that we will be the two guys doing this again next year.’”
Certainly for Edwards it was a heartbreaking end to a season where he almost proved that consistency alone could win a championship.
He came into Homestead with the points lead after winning only one race all season. But over those 36 races he was never far from the front.
“This night is about Tony Stewart,” Edwards said. “Those guys rose to the occasion. They beat us fair and square; that was all I had there at the end. We led the most laps but Tony and his guys still managed to come out in front of us.”
It was the decision by Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb to stay out an extra 12 laps with 66 laps to go that put the No. 14 car in position to win.
“That is what won us the race,” Stewart said.
Mother nature tried her best to be the deciding factor with three cautions — one of them a stop for one hour and 15 minutes — for rain on the track.
And Jimmie Johnson’s historic five-year reign as Cup champion came to an ignominious end when a faulty carburator ending a nine-season string of Top 5 championship finishes for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson ended up 32nd in the race and ninth on the season.
The stylized No. 3 that adorned the doors and roof of Dale Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has become almost sacred in the sport. But this past weekend at Homestead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his permission to bring it back in Sprint Cup if RCR wants to put it on Austin Dillon’s car, should he make it to the Cup series. “I don’t look at the numbers tied to drivers as much as just the history of the number. The number is more of a bank, you know, that you just deposit history into,” Earnhardt said. “It doesn’t really belong to any individual.” ... Ex-Formula One driver Nelson Piquet Jr. has signed a new contract to continue his apprenticeship in NASCAR. The 26-year-old native of Brazil will compete in his second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series and a partial season (seven races) in the Nationwide Series in 2012 with Turner Motorsports.