HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Tony Stewart nearly wrote off his season during a summer slump, then dismissed his chances at the beginning of NASCAR’s championship chase.
Then something changed — with his cars, with his attitude, with his driving — and old “Smoke” was back.
With a vengeance.
Stewart thrust himself early into title contention, then never let up as he drove all over the competition and chased down Carl Edwards.
He seized his third championship Sunday night with a powerful and relentless drive that will go down with the greatest in NASCAR history.
He won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding off Edwards for a tie in the final Sprint Cup Series standings — good enough to win the title based on his five victories.
All of Stewart’s wins came in the Chase, and Edwards’ lone victory this season was in March. It was the first tie in the points standings in NASCAR history.
How good was Stewart, who drove from the back — twice! — and passed 118 cars during the race?
“I think Tony drove the best race of his life,” said A.J. Foyt, Stewart’s childhood idol.
The compliment nearly brought Stewart to tears.
“Not many people can hear your lifelong hero say that. Just really, really flattering,” said Stewart, who wasn’t sure it was the best drive of his 31-year career, but knew it was pretty strong.
“I feel like I passed half the state of Florida; 118 cars is a lot of cars to pass in one race. To do it under the circumstances and pressure we had, I’m very, very proud of that. I can’t even remember how many races I’ve won, but I would have to say under this set of circumstances I’ve got to believe (this was) one of the greatest races of my career.”
Stewart became the first owner/driver to win the championship since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992, and the driver to end Jimmie Johnson’s record five-year title run. Stewart’s previous title was in 2005, the year before Johnson’s reign began.
Stewart overcame a hole in the grill of his Chevrolet, a rain delay, used debatable fuel strategy and made aggressive passes that stunned onlookers to win Sunday. He’s been driving that way for at least a month, buoyed in part by a race-winning pass of Johnson on the outside at Martinsville, Va., that gave him his third Chase win.
“He’s been the one to go three- and four-wide when everyone else is scared and lifts,” said crew chief Darian Grubb, who was told in the middle of the Chase he was being let go at the end of the season because the Stewart-Haas Racing team wasn’t performing. His status is now uncertain.
Edwards, who started the race with a three-point lead in the standings, did everything he could from the minute he arrived in Florida. His Roush-Fenway Racing team put his Ford on the pole, he led a race-high 119 of the 267 laps and still finished a helpless second.
Edwards, who had a 4.9 average finish over the 10 Chase races, was disappointed but held his head high after the race.
“This night is about Tony Stewart. Those guys rose to the occasion, and they beat us fair and square,” Edwards said. “That is all I had. We came here and sat on the pole, led the most laps and Tony still managed. That’s it. That’s all I got at the end. That’s as hard as I can drive.
“I told my wife, ‘If I can’t win this thing, I’m going to be the best loser NASCAR has ever had.’ So, I’m going to try really hard to keep my head up and know that we’ll just go next year and we’ll be just as hard to beat.”
As third-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. did his post-race news conference, Edwards sat silently off to the side, his eyes fixed on a bank of televisions showing Stewart’s celebration.
“If I could do it all over again, there’s nothing I could have done differently,” he whispered. “That’s my maximal effort, and Tony beat us. We knew that of all the circumstances possible, this was the least probable. But I was prepared for this.”
When more rain forced NASCAR to stop the field for 75 minutes, Stewart confidently walked pit road and sent a message to Edwards.
“We are fixin’ to keep delivering this whoopin’; we got more in mind for him the rest of the day,” he said in an ESPN interview.
Stewart kept his word.
Unofficial final driver standings in NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup (x = wins title on tiebreaker):
Dale Earnhardt Jr.2,290