HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Tony Stewart insisted he wasn’t a title contender when NASCAR’s championship race began.
When it became clear he actually was a viable threat, he kicked it into another gear and vowed to go for broke in his pursuit of Carl Edwards.
Did he ever.
Stewart used a powerful and relentless drive — some might suggest the best in NASCAR history — on Sunday in the season finale to seize his third NASCAR championship. He overcame a hole in the grill of his Chevrolet, a rain delay, used debatable fuel strategy and made 118 passes on the track to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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.
The two actually ended up tied in the final standings — a NASCAR first — but Stewart won the title based on his five victories, all in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship — to Edwards’ one.
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.
“Are you kidding me?” Stewart asked in Victory Lane. “We said all week we’d just go out and win the race and didn’t have to worry about what (Edwards) did. If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what will.
“If this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don’t know what is.”
Edwards 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 fixated 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.