Five things learned at Homestead
Tony Stewart's third Chase title was one of the greatest runs in NASCAR history
Having fallen to Stewart, Carl Edwards displayed grace in the face of huge defeat
Jimmie Johnson's sixth-place points finish is his worst performance in a decade
It evoked so much epic imagery from so many other clutch, classic performances as to inevitably be buried in mounds of gooey hyperbole. The shame is that Tony Stewart's unstoppable steamroll to his third Sprint Cup championship and defeat of Carl Edwards needs no more of the exaggeration and fawning that are sure to be attached. On its face and with deeper analysis, it should stand on its own as one of the great performances in NASCAR history.
Stewart overcame a hole in his grille in the early laps to mince through the field and to the front twice, making 118 passes, the last for the lead on a restart on Lap 232 of 267, after which he ran off from runner-up Edwards to win by 1.3 seconds.
His win tied him atop the final Sprint Cup points standings with Edwards, but Stewart captured his first title since 2005 by virtue of a 5-1 edge in victories, all in the 10-race Chase for the Championship.
He said for a month he was going to do this somehow, some way. And he did.
It was good enough for Stewart's longtime idol, A.J. Foyt, to concede, "I think Tony drove the best race of his life."
That might have said it all.
Stewart called over his team radio as he took the checkered flag, "Do we got it?"
He got it. Five more things we got at Homestead-Miami Speedway:
1. Tony Stewart had his doubts: The two-time series champion in 2008 acquired half of a flagging Sprint Cup team co-owned by Gene Haas -- then serving a sentence for federal income tax evasion -- and in 2009 left a comfortable situation at Joe Gibbs Racing to become a driver/owner. The job description wasn't as glamorous as in NASCAR's earlier years. And Stewart had doubts. "I would be lying if I said there were a lot of nights I laid my head on a pillow and said, 'Have you lost your mind?' " he admitted. "It was a lot easier being a driver. And there was a lot of responsibility that came with being a driver in a big organization, but you know, there's a lot of worries. It's still a business."
2. Carl Edwards had his J.R. Hildebrand moment: There is some irony in the fact that Stewart once equated Edwards with one of the most renowned phonies in television history and that five years later Edwards was left sitting in an interview room, having just surrendered a first championship in one of the more scintillating finishes in NASCAR history, assuring everyone that his staid, reasoned handling of the calamity was indeed genuine. If Edwards is a fake, he's risen to championship caliber, and wouldn't lose the trophy in a tiebreaker.
Either way, his handling of a crushing professional moment will be one of the more lingering memories of an evening and final 10 weeks of the season full of them. Just as rookie J.R. Hildebrand graciously navigated his surrendering of an apparent Indianapolis 500 victory this May by crashing in the final turn, Edwards -- saying he would "be the best loser NASCAR's ever had" - displayed supreme grace in what must have been an agonizing situation, especially after leading the points for 23 weeks and taking so long to regain championship form after winning nine races and finishing second in points in 2008. "This is how I feel. I'm not BS'ing you. This is me," he said after insisting he will derive positives from the defeat. "I'm not going to go rip the door off my motor home or freak out or anything. I'm going to go hang out with my family and we'll go to the beach tomorrow and go celebrate Ricky's championship. But I think it's important to look back and come up with things, look at things you could do differently to really analyze everything and to see where you did things wrong, you did things right."
3. Darian Grubb handles pressure like a diving bell ... or had nothing to lose: He first was introduced to the wider public in 2006, when Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet failed a post-qualifying Daytona 500 inspection because of illegal aerodynamic modifications and crew chief Chad Knaus was banned from the event and three subsequent races. Grubb, then a lead engineer at Hendrick Motorsports, replaced Knaus and not only helped Johnson to his only victory in NASCAR's premier race but amassed two wins, three top-5s and four top-10s in four races before Knaus returned.
Three years later, Grubb left the organization to become Stewart's crew chief when he formed his own team, and on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he validated the decision by being fearless, decisive. With Stewart running blistering lap times and beginning to assert himself, Grubb sent his driver into fuel-conservation mode, hoping to require just one final pit stop while the rest of the field would likely require two. Stewart seemed in need of convincing, and Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne were left to react. But it worked. Stewart milked his No. 14 Chevrolet for the laps Grubb needed, reaching the pits on vapors with 57 left and was able to go the final distance on fuel -- and four key fresh tires -- with the help of a shower that drew a lengthy caution period. In many respects, it was a brilliant, gutsy call, dubbed by Stewart "the call of the race, the call of the Chase." Or maybe there was no pressure at all. Grubb revealed in a post-race interview that he had been informed earlier in the Chase that he would not return to his post in 2012. He was unsure on Sunday night if his status with the team had changed.
4. Jimmie Johnson hadn't taken it for granted: The five-time defending series champion had been realistic about the mortality of his historic title run. He deemed its end inevitable and seemed mentally and emotionally prepared for that eventuality as he slipped further out of title contention this season. But arriving in South Florida, amid all the reminders of the past five run-ups to the titlist's stage, seemed to sadden Johnson slightly, and also remind him just how much he enjoyed his absolute stranglehold on the trophy. Johnson's bid to end the season with a push into 2012 was futile, as an apparent carburetor failure and later slide on old tires relegated him to a 32nd-place finish. Johnson, who at 35 could be experiencing a blip into a march toward the record of seven titles by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, finished sixth in points, his worse performance in a decade as a full-time driver. Johnson has finished first five times, fifth twice, second twice and sixth in that decade.
5. Points to ponder: Stewart and Edwards gave NASCAR chairman Brian France his long-sought-after "Game 7-" type moment for the Sprint Cup finale. A revamped points system will be roundly lauded for helping shape that finish. But there may still be room for improvement. Consider: Edwards posted an average finish of 4.9 in the Chase and couldn't win a championship. Stewart won a record five of ten Chase races and couldn't run off with the title. The question is whether that reflects the differing routes these drivers took to their final battle in Homestead or a shift in the never-ending grope for balance between rewarding victory and consistency.
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