Stewart reached Victory Lane in four of the first eight races, tying a Chase record for most playoff wins set by Jimmie Johnson in 2007 (and matched by Johnson in '09). The only reason Stewart trailed Edwards by three points going into Homestead was because Edwards and his number 99 Ford team were ruthlessly consistent in the playoffs—just as they'd been all season. Over the 36 races, Edwards led all drivers in top five finishes (19), top 10s (26) and weeks spent atop the standings (21). Under the pre-Chase points system, which NASCAR employed for 29 years, Edwards would have won the title by 78 points over Kevin Harvick and 87 over Stewart. Edwards reached Victory Lane only once in 2011 (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6), but in the Chase he never finished lower than 11th, which was a playoff record. His average finish of 4.9 in the Chase was the best ever for the playoffs. "We let a few checkered flags slip away," Edwards said on the eve of Homestead. "The way this format is set up is that you have to be consistent, and that's exactly what we've been. Jimmie Johnson has proven there are different ways to win the championship."
This was a disappointing Chase for Johnson. A here-we-go-again vibe fell over the garage when Johnson took the checkered flag at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 9, but then he crashed violently the following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he came in 34th. He wasn't the same driver for the rest of the playoffs and was mathematically eliminated from title contention on Nov. 13 after he finished 14th at Phoenix, marking the first time since 2003 that he wasn't in the hunt at Homestead. "It's hitting me like a punch in the gut that our run is over," Johnson said last Friday as he stood under an awning sprouting from his motor coach in the Homestead infield and watched raindrops fall from the sky. "I was the one holding the wheel at Charlotte, so I take full responsibility for us not winning again. We're already in meetings planning for next year. I really believe we have more titles in us."
On a spring evening in Charlotte in 2008, everything changed for Tony Stewart. He had recently been offered 50% ownership of Haas CNC Racing, which received engines, chassis and engineering support from Rick Hendrick, the owner of the sport's most powerful team, Hendrick Motorsports. As Stewart weighed whether to leave Joe Gibbs Racing, where he had won Cup titles in '02 and '05, to become the only full-time driver in the series to also own a team, he visited with Hendrick. Stewart's first question was whether there would be an open-book policy between the teams' crew chiefs and drivers when it came to car setups, wind-tunnel data and engineering information. "I'll give you all the backing you need," Hendrick told Stewart. "I won't let you fail."
Stewart hasn't. Since opening Stewart-Haas Racing before the 2009 season, Stewart has qualified for three straight Chases. While he makes final decisions at SHR when it comes to budgets and investments, Stewart, who also has a stake in three racetracks and four lower-level teams, cedes the day-to-day running of the team to others. "You can't compare me as an owner to what Alan Kulwicki did in 1992, because he built his team by himself," Stewart says. "I'm just a piece of the puzzle." (It is a puzzle that keeps getting rearranged: Despite the championship, sources say, Grubb is unlikely to remain in 2012.)
Late on Sunday night, nearly four hours after he'd won the most improbable title of his career, the driver and owner of Stewart-Haas Racing strolled back onto the track one last time, looking up into the dark, empty stands with a Schlitz Tall Boy in his hands. "That feeling of confidence I had three days ago never went away during the race, even when we fell back to 40th," Stewart said. "None of us panicked. We just weren't going to be denied. Not here. Not tonight."