By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) - 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 suddenly 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's 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 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. His last title was in 2005,
the year before Johnson's began his reign.
Stewart overcame a hole in the grill of his Chevrolet, a rain
delay, used debatable fuel strategy and made aggressive passes that
stunned racing veterans 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 that gave him his third
"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
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 championship 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."
Edwards, despite being the most consistent driver this season
and points leader for 21 weeks, has been on the ropes the last
month as Stewart turned up his energy, effort and trash-talking.
His quick wit and sharp tongue kept the entire industry entertained
as he did everything possible to get inside Edwards' head.
Maybe it was really for Stewart's benefit, a driver trying to
talk himself into believing he had a shot at the title after
struggling all summer long. He maybe didn't rattle Edwards, but
Stewart for sure talked himself into this title.
He arrived in Miami insistent he'd race with nothing to lose and
did just that from the moment the race began. He was moving through
the field from his 15th starting spot when caution came out 14 laps
into the race. His Stewart-Haas Racing crew discovered a hole in
his grill, and the repairs dropped him to 40th in the field.
Stewart then blew by car after car and was up to 23rd in a
matter of minutes. Another caution sent him into the pits for more
repairs, and he restarted in 32nd.
His yapping then resumed, as he scoffed on his radio how
embarrassed Edwards and the No. 99 team would be when Stewart drove
from the back of the field - twice! - to beat them.
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.
Edwards, meanwhile, huddled with crew chief Bob Osborne atop the
pit box and declined to be interviewed. His Roush Fenway Racing
team had to be nervous about engine durability - three Roush Yates
engines failed over the course of the race - and Edwards eventually
retreated to his motorhome to snack on popcorn and keep his focus.
When racing resumed, Stewart continued to slice through the
field and used several spectacular three- and four-wide passes to
close in on Edwards. Then crew chief Grubb made an unusual call to
keep Stewart out on the track until he was just about out of gas.
It was a risky call but worked perfectly when the rain came moments
after Stewart finally stopped for gas.
It gave Stewart breathing room as he was able to save gas under
yellow. He was fourth on the final restart, Edwards was sixth, and
Stewart used a three-wide pass over Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and
AJ Allmendinger to reclaim the lead.
Although Edwards quickly moved into second, he couldn't catch
Stewart as he sailed to his fifth Chase victory.
"They got 5 wins in 10 races," Osborne said. "That's pretty
unbelievable. But they did it, and it got them the championship."
The championship completes a total turnaround for co-owner Gene
Haas, who sold half his slumping organization to Stewart in 2008 in
a hope the driver could bring a spark to a team that struggled to
stay inside the top-35 in points.
"Tony Stewart's a superstar, we knew that," Haas said. "You
need a wheelman. You can have all the best equipment in the world,
and without a wheelman, you don't have a whole lot."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)