When NASCAR announced before the beginning of the season that it was going to be introducing a new point system for the Sprint Cup Series, few could have predicted the series would not be able to crown its champion until after the last lap of the last race of the season. But that is exactly what took place Sunday in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami, where it was definitely winner takes all.
Tony Stewart entered the race trailing points leader Carl Edwards by just three points. With every finishing spot being worth one more point, it was apparent to Stewart that the only way he could be guaranteed the series title was by winning the race. By winning the race he and Edwards would end in a tie in the points, but the first tiebreaker that NASCAR uses is the driver with the most wins, and Edwards had posted only one win on the season while Stewart had four entering Sunday’s race. More importantly, all of those wins came at the right time as all occurred during the 10-race Chase.
The win didn’t come easy for Stewart, who twice had to work his way from the back of the field while also dealing with s hole in his front grille and a couple of slow pit stops. The drama didn’t end there for Stewart and his Offi ce Depot team. It took a gusty call late in the race by crew chief Darian Grubb that would give Stewart new tires when he needed them the most — after rain came to the track for the second time. On the day, Stewart passed a total of 76 cars for position on his way to his third Sprint Cup Championship.
The championship further cements Stewart as one of the best to ever race in the sport. All three of his championships have come under different scoring formats. Stewart’s first title came while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2002 and that was under what is now known as the pre-chasse format. His second title in 2005, also for Gibbs, came under the original Chase format.
This year’s championship may be the sweetest of the three for Stewart. He now is the first driver/ owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the title. It was also a season of two halves for Stewart. In August, he said his team didn’t really deserve to be in the Chase. While the team had struggled all season long, once the Chase got under way the Stewart team established itself as one of the teams to beat.
When the points were reset to start the Chase, Stewart started in ninth, 12 points behind the leader. He immediately won the first race at Chicago and found himself in second place trailing leader Kevin Harvick by seven points. He took over the top spot the next week at New Hampshire with his second consecutive win, but was unable to hold on to the top spot.
Edwards took command of the points after race No. 4 at Kansas and held that spot the rest of the way until the checkered flag at Homestead. Stewart actually dropped as low as seventh (19 points out of first) in the standings after Kansas. It was after the fifth stop of the Chase at Charlotte that he fell the farthest off the pace (-24 points) even though he moved up two spots to fifth.
It was a slow methodical climb to the championship for Stewart, but in doing so he may have given others the blueprint for winning. The new point system places more emphasis on winning and rewards those that win both before the Chase and during the Chase. Winning a race before the Chase gives the driver a three-point bonus to start the final leg.
Edwards’ three-point lead at the start of the race on Sunday was the bonus points he earned for his only win of the season. Without the 15 bonus points (3 for each win) Stewart earned for his wins during the Chase, Edwards would have been the series champion with his lone win.
So finally, after 36 races and 10 months of racing, Tony Stewart becomes the first driver to enter the chase winless in the regular season to win the championship. He proved that 2011 was truly a year of “Winner Takes All!”