Article first published as Sprint Cup Champion – Tony Stewart on Technorati.
MIAMI — There are race car drivers. And then there is Tony Stewart. Through the ten-race Sprint Cup Chase to the championship, Stewart carved in the exclamation point by seizing a hard fought win in South Florida. Despite an early mechanical issue that dropped Stewart to the rear of the field, driver and team rose to the occasion, cruised through the field and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Carl Edwards finished a disappointing second.
The last Sunday of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season started out like almost any other with a couple of exceptions. Every eye was focused on Edwards and challenger Stewart, just three points behind in the Chase. And there is no next week. It all came down to this.
Carl Edwards was fast in practice and fastest in qualifying. The race started with Edwards on the pole driving with the confidence of the next champion. Stewart started from the 15th spot.
Edwards wasted no time making a statement and led the first few laps until an early caution for rain came out on lap 13. Stewart by then had moved his way up to 9th.
On lap 18 Stewart brought the Office Depot Chevy to the pit with damage to the front air intake. Crew members worked diligently for a couple of laps bringing their driver in and out of the pit to maintain his position on the lead lap. After repairs Stewart was almost dead-last on the field in the 40th position.
Over the next several laps, as front-runner Carl Edwards continued his domination, Tony Stewart continued to claw his way back toward the front.
On lap 110 a hard rain moved across the speedway bringing out a red flag. The race cars pulled into the pits and drivers exited their race cars to wait out the rain. Stewart had worked his way back to 5th.
A little more than an hour later, with nightfall imminent and track lighting ignited, NASCAR lifted the red flag and sent the competitors back onto the raceway. They ran seven laps under yellow before taking the green on lap 110.
Tony Stewart took the lead on lap 123 and stayed there until a caution for a Trevor Bayne brush with the wall. A slight bobble on Stewart’s pit stop relegated the Office Depot Chevy back to 8th. Carl Edwards restarted in 3rd.
It only took Stewart a half dozen laps to come back and retake the lead but the driver continued to have problems on pit road. On a lap 153 caution for a backstretch altercation between Landon Cassill, Cole Whitt, and Trevor Bayne, Stewart again lost several positions for a mechanical problem in his pit. On the lap 161 restart it was Carl Edwards in 4th and Tony Stewart in 10th.
On lap 201 with Stewart and Edwards running nose-to-tail, Edwards pitted and Stewart stayed out. It was a major gamble for the Office Depot driver as his crew chief, Darrian Grubb, rolled the dice on a fuel mileage strategy, hoping to stretch the fuel to a point where they could finish the race with no more pit stops.
On fumes Stewart took to the pits on lap 212. Just a lap later NASCAR waved the caution flag for rain on the track. This allowed the leaders, including Carl Edwards to come in to pit. With each yellow flag lap the fuels savings were multiplying for both Edwards and Stewart.
At the restart on lap 231 (of 267) Stewart was in 3rd and Edwards in 6th. With the fresher tires, Stewart quickly got around leader Kyle Busch and 2nd place Brad Keselowski.
On lap 236 Edwards charged past the 2nd and 3rd places cars to take second behind leader Tony Stewart.
It’s fitting that the last laps came down to a head-to-head of the race between the two championship contenders. Tony Stewart did exactly what he had to do. He had to win to win. At the end of the race the competitors were tied in points. The tie-breaker went to Stewart on the number of victories over the season.
Martin Truex Jr. followed Edwards to take 3rd, Matt Kenseth 4th, and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5. Clint Bowyer took 6th, Kasey Kahne 7th, followed by Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Burton.
For winning the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship, Tony Stewart took home a check from the series sponsor for over $5.6 million dollars. Stewart also becomes the first driver-owner to win the championship since 1992 when Alan Kulwicki brought home the title. Through the course of Sunday night’s race, Tony Stewart passed 118 cars. It is the first time since 1975 that a driver has come from behind in points to win the championship by winning the final race of the season. NASCAR implemented the points system in 1975.
The NASCAR season is done. Racing returns in February for the Shootout in Daytona on February 18, 2012.