It was nip and tuck through much of the second half of the race - one vs. two, Ford against Chevrolet - in a winner-take-all NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards seeking his first Cup championship with just one man to beat, two-time Cup winner Tony Stewart.
In the end, a gutsy strategic play by the crew chief for the man they call "Smoke" to stay on track and conserve fuel at a critical stage in the race proved to be the play of the day, and ultimately of the Chase. Crew chief Darian Grubb's risky call to keep the No. 14 car on track while Edwards pitted just after the 200-lap mark enabled Stewart to hold on over the final 36 laps to win the Ford 400 and deny Edwards' No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford the 2011 Sprint Cup championship.
Not that it really mattered with all of the focus on Stewart and Edwards in this race, but third place went to Martin Truex Jr., Edwards' teammate Matt Kenseth finished fourth and Jeff Gordon was fifth. Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer, who will be moving from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip's team in 2012, came in sixth. This is the first time in six years that Jimmie Johnson has failed to win the Sprint Cup title. Ironically, the last driver to win the title before Johnson's five-year run was Stewart.
The 40-year-old Stewart battled from behind for much of the race, at one point falling all the way back to 40th place while his pit crew repaired a hole in the front grille of his No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet, caused from contact with debris on the track early in the season-ending race. Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., started the day in the pole position and led for almost half the race (116 laps), but not when it counted the most, at race end.
Stewart had worked his way through traffic, moving all the way up to seventh when the first rain delay hit. After the race resumed, the No. 14 car actually surged to the front of the pack to take a brief lead before falling back again to the middle of the pack after his pit crew took too long replacing one of Stewart's front tires.
Adding to the drama of the event, which NASCAR officials equated to being like Game Seven of the World Series or the NFL Super Bowl, the two drivers with the only chance to win this year's Chase ran one-two from lap 180 to the finish of the 267-lap race.
Edwards ran out in front for 87 of the first 109 laps before an afternoon rain shower forced a stoppage and a 75-minute delay. With Edwards running so well in the race, Stewart knew he would have to win the race to wipe out his three-point deficit to the native Missouri and win the championship. In finishing one-two, Edwards and Stewart actually tied in points (each with 2,403), but Stewart won the tiebreaker by virtue of his five Chase victories to Edwards' one race win on the season.
"I was fully prepared for Tony to run out of fuel or have a tire problem or for anything to happen," Edwards told reporters after Sunday's season finale. "I didn't really think about the consequences of what was going on. I just had to drive the hardest I could, and I did. I drove to the edge and beyond, and that is all I had."
Said Stewart about his crew chief's gamble to stay out and conserve fuel late in the race: "To make that call at the end, my nerves were shot...he (Darian Grubb) said, ‘Save fuel, run at this pace.' We pit two laps later, I say I can't run that pace and save fuel...I go into fuel conservation mode, it's hard to watch guys come barreling past you and stay disciplined stick to the plan."
Stewart became the first owner-driver to win a Cup championship in NASCAR's top series since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. It also was the first time the drivers who were first and second in the points tied after the final race of the season. Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, has been in the Chase in seven of the eight seasons the 10-race season-ending event has been held. The only year he missed out was in 2006, when he missed the Chase cutline by 16 points.
Despite falling just short after holding the lead in the drivers' standings for most of the season, Edwards preferred to look at the bright side. "My true feeling right now is I'm obviously disappointed we didn't win. That would have been a spectacular result. But I'm very proud. Some of the best races I've run in my life were this Chase.
"If I look back on this Chase, there's not one thing that I say that I'd have done or wish I had done," he said. "I'm truly proud of this season. But it's over."
In a strange twist of fate, Stewart had informed crew chief Darian Grubb midway through this year's Chase for the Cup that he would not return in that role for the Stewart-Haas team in 2012. This, despite the fact that the Stewart-Haas team is actually adding a third driver next year when Danica Patrick will race a partial Sprint Cup schedule as part of her switchover to NASCAR.
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