Monday, November 21, 2011
The 2011 Finale of the Sprint Cup was held at Homestead earlier today. The man pictured above, Tony Stewart, became the first driver-owner since 1992 when the late Alan Kulwicki won the NASCAR Championship. Stewart, whose nickname is Smoke, won his third championship, although if you saw his stats and the way he was racing coming into the Chase, he wouldn't have been a favorite. He had no wins, was running in the mid-teens and was running races engaged in a feud with Brian Vickers which cost him more than a few dollars fixing his cars after the wrecks. His crew chief, Darien Grubb, was told that he wasn't going to be back next year. So what does the Office Depot team do? They go out and win 5 races in the chase, and win the Tiebreaker with Carl Edwards about who won the most races during the season 5-1.
The start of the race didn't look like Stewart was going to have a shot. Just 4 laps into the race Kurt Busch has his transmission go out and lots of debris came out of the 22 car. One of the pieces went through the mesh on the front of Stewart's car. Somehow, it didn't put a hole in the radiator. (I would love to see the picture of the radiator taken out of the Homestead car. I bet there was a dent at the very least). Anyways, that was Lucky Break #1. Lucky Break #2 for this race was the rain that came right after the hole was put into the mesh. That allowed the #14 crew to have extra time to work on that and get the problem fixed. Stewart restarted after the rain in 40th place. It was the first of many times that he would start from the back of the field.
Stewart raced up to 23rd and another caution allowed his crew to work on the beaten up car already some more. He restarted the race in 32nd. Meanwhile, Edwards was driving up front and doing everything that he could do to ensure that there was no drama about the championship. In fact, Edwards led this race over 115 laps. Stewart knew that he had a strong car and was telling his crew about how the 99 team would be ashamed when he won the race after coming back from the back of the field twice. It just went along with the rest of the chase where Stewart was flapping his gums and telling the world that he would finish with his third championship. Every chance he got, he was telling Edwards that he was coming to win and there was nothing that the #99 team could do. Well, he had the chance to prove it today.
During a second rain delay that lasted 75 minutes, Stewart was still bragging about what the end would bring. He told ESPN, ''We are fixin' to keep delivering this whoopin'; we got more in mind for him the rest of the day.'' And I am almost certain that Edwards heard that quote. And he had to be a bit worried. Stewart was passing cars right and left going through the field. In fact, at the end of the race, Stewart had passed 118 cars on the way to victory in the race and the season. But the best driving that Smoke was to do hadn't been done yet. And the crew chief that was told that he wasn't coming back next year made the call of the year to allow Stewart the chance at immortality.
After racing resumed, Stewart was a man possessed. He was making three and four-wide passes to try and catch up to Edwards. And then Darien Grubb made the decision of the season. Stewart was out front after green flag pit stops and told Stewart to conserve fuel. Even as people who had completed their pit stops were gaining anywhere from 1 to 2 seconds on Stewart. He ran out of gas on his way into the pits. And the car fired right up after the fuel stop. He had outran Edwards on the tank of fuel by at least 10 laps. And the lap after Stewart came out, a yellow flag was thrown for rain yet again. At the final restart, he was fourth, not needing to pit again, while his competitors needed one more stop. It was at that point that Smoke saw the light at the end of the tunnel and went for it. He passed AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch to take the lead and not look back. Edwards finished in 2nd, and the points were tied, but in the end, Stewart was correct in last week's statement. All I have to do is win the race next week, and whatever Carl does does not matter.
In the big scheme of things, the Chase has done what it is designed to do. It allowed for the last couple of races at the end of the season to mean something and the ability for NASCAR to hype it's product that used to get crushed by coverage of the NFL. For those that don't like the Chase, I agree with you, but get over it. NASCAR got tired of people winning the Championship by 400 points or something close to it. So they decided to make it where racers that were having good seasons got a second bite at the apple by declaring there was a special format where only select individuals could win the championship. It also made lots of sponsors happy. If you are Carl's Jr. and you are on the 10th place car during the old format, you might get mentioned once or twice a race. Now, you are mentioned for a good amount of time for at least one race and if the driver does well at the first stop of the Chase, then you get even more publicity. Makes keeping those sponsors paying out major dollars easier.
As for Carl Edwards, I did gain back some respect for him. He showed class in his losing the Championship that in all probabilities should have been his. He did the interviews, went and shaked Stewart's hand and was friendly to all. But you know that this has to tear him apart inside. If only one point more had been scored by him or one point less scored by Stewart, he would be the champion. I am sure that the Edwards fans out there are screaming that the pass of Jeff Burton by Tony Stewart at the end of the race of one of the Chase races was given to Stewart by Burton and that is what caused this fiasco. Well, if that is the case, then let's call Roush on his team orders to help any of their teammates in the chase a fiasco as well. And the one thing I do get a crack-up about is that the Ford Racing division has said that Roush is basically the factory team for Ford. Stewart-Haas for Chevy? Not so much.
This year, just like every year had it's share of controversies, hard feelings, and good racing. Next year will be the same. And while the cast of characters fighting for the championship might be different, if NASCAR has it's way, there will be two drivers with a shot at winning the championship in Homestead driving their asses off in pursuit at immortality.