When Tony Stewart crossed the finish line first at Homestead in the Ford 400 to win his third Sprint Cup title, the real winner had to be NASCAR.
If this were any other year, the press and fans would already be talking about February’s Daytona 500 and the beginning of a new season. That just isn’t the case this year as the 10-race Chase played out the way NASCAR and its fans dreamed about for years.
Each year when the season starts, the hope is the battle for the title will come down to the last lap of the last race, and that is exactly how it played out in 2011. Stewart and Carl Edwards put on a show for the ages and in the process brought a lot of excitement back to the sport and created a ton of momentum for the 2012 season.
The sport was ready for a new champion after Jimmie Johnson’s five-year domination. Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus were so good over that fivechampionship span that much of the drama and excitement were taken away from the Chase long before the final checkered flag had waved. Johnson did enter last season’s final trailing Denny Hamlin, but Hamlin encountered problems at Homestead that took him out of the hunt.
Stewart joins three other drivers who overcame a points deficit going into the season finale and won the championship. Richard Petty did it in 1979, Alan Kulwicki in 1992, and Johnson last season. All three of those drivers won by accumulating the most points, but Stewart ended up in a tie in the points with Edwards.
Stewart became the seventh champion to win the season finale in his championship season, and it took that victory to tie him with Edwards. It was the three bonus points he received for winning that tied him at the top and would forever add fuel to the argument that it is consistency that clinches championships and not wins.
That argument might be leaning toward wins being more important, especially when you look at the numbers Stewart and Edwards put up. Edwards had a Chase-record average finish of 4.9 over the 10 races compared to Stewart’s 6.3. Both of those numbers could be those of the champion, but Stewart’s five wins during the Chase and Edwards going winless during that span proved to be the difference.
Edwards did win one race during the “regular” season to enter the Chase with three bonus points, while Stewart gained entrance into the title run without the benefit of a victory. Stewart didn’t waste any time once the Chase started, winning the first race on his way to a record-setting total of five.
Stewart became the ninth driver to win three or more championships by the age of 40. You have to think the owner/driver will be in the thick of several more championship battles before his time behind the wheel is over. Stewart ties Lee Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip with three titles, and it is interesting to note that each of these drivers is either a NASCAR Hall of Fame member or nominee.
BUSCH LEAGUE: While there was a terrific battle going on for the top two spots in the Chase, a couple of brothers were doing everything they could to also make it a very memorable moment in their careers.
Kyle Busch actually had his moment in a truck race when he decided to push Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall. NASCAR pulled the younger Busch’s license for the rest of the weekend, forcing him to sit out the Texas Cup race. His sponsor, M&M’s, also withdrew as his sponsor for the last two races.
Brother Kurt Busch did make it through the entire Chase behind the wheel, but it was after he had problems early in the race at Homestead that he put the exclamation point on his 10- race stretch. While waiting to be interviewed by Dr. Jerry Punch for ESPN, he was caught on film issuing a profanity-filled tongue- lashing. Both drivers were knocked out of speaking at the banquet as Kurt finished 11th and Kyle 12th.