Sunday was what NASCAR envisioned when it created the “Chase for the Cup.”
Two drivers battling on the final lap, with both the race win and championship on the line.
To the critics of the Chase who point to Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart being way down in the points at the start of the 10-race playoffs, that was actually a positive.
I’ve been pointing out for weeks that Stewart’s run for the title is no different than the Green Bay Packers getting into last year’s NFL playoffs off a New York Giants’ loss, or the St. Louis Cardinals taking advantage of the Atlanta Braves’ collapse to reach the MLB playoffs. In both cases, those wild-card teams made the most of their opportunities. The same can be said for Stewart, who was ninth in points entering the Chase.
On the other hand, Carl Edwards would have been just as deserving of a championship. For the season as a whole, no team was better than the No. 99 crew.
Edwards, who scored one win and tied Stewart with 2,403 points, was easily the most consistent driver of the year, with 19 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 finishes.
However, NASCAR fans have said for years they want race wins to play a bigger factor in determining the champion. It was the case this season with Stewart’s five wins in 10 Chase races.
If Edwards would have won another race, even before the start of the Chase, the extra bonus points would have been enough to have given him the title.
Looking back on the last few races, you have to admire how both drivers were consistently among the top finishers. Stewart won three of the final four races, and neither driver finished lower than third over the final three.
I loved the contrast of styles, and it was fitting that track promoters built up the two-man championship race like a heavyweight title fight.
There was Stewart, the most naturally gifted driver on the planet, facing Edwards, a modern racer who puts as much emphasis on being physically fit as being mechanically sound.
Stewart stays sharp by racing other types of cars throughout the year, while Edwards uses training methods like cycling, running and lifting weights to keep in top condition.
Their approach to the media and their fellow competitors is even different. Stewart tells it like it is, no matter what the consequences, while Edwards comes across as the nice guy who can play dirty if the situation calls for it.
What they have in common is a deep respect in the NASCAR garage. Stewart’s fellow drivers and others inside the sport recognize his eronomous talent. They also see the work Edwards puts into becoming the best he can be.
It was the classic Chevy vs. Ford battle with the added bonus of the best Hendrick motors going head-to-head with the stoutest pieces from Roush.
Stewart certainly caught his share of lucky breaks during Sunday’s race, although no one can fairly say he didn’t deserve to win. He made 76 passes over the course of the 500-mile race.
A former Indy Car champion and the first man to win USAC’s triple crown (Sprint Car, Silver Crown and Midget championships in the same year), Stewart was already considered one of racing’s great drivers.
Add in he’s won races in everything from sports cars to the World of Outlaws winged sprint cars, and he’s the most versatile driver out there.
A third NASCAR championship puts Stewart among the all-elite to ever wheel a stock car. Only eight other men — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Lee Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip — have won three or more Cup Series titles.
It was Stewart’s 44th career victory Sunday, moving him into a tie with Bill Elliott for 15th on the all-time win list.
In terms of natural ability, Stewart has been often compared to Gordon, and for good reason. When you look at their numbers over the 12 years since Stewart joined the Cup Series, you see why both rank among the sport’s elite.
During that time, Stewart has a 44-43 edge in race wins, while Gordon holds advantages in poles, top-five finishes and top-10 finishes. However, Stewart does have the edge in the stat that matters the most — 3-1 in championships won.
The great championship battle between Stewart and Edwards capped off a banner year, which will also be remembered for the upset wins by Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500 and Paul Menard in the Brickyard 400.
It was a year when Johnson’s championship streak ended, and a year when Gordon moved up to third-place on the sport’s all-time win list.
Brad Keselowski emerged as a breakout star, while the Busch brothers suffered setbacks and despite two wins, Denny Hamlin ranked as the year’s biggest disappointment.
It was a year when Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to win a race, but was able to make the Chase, and a year when plans were announced for Danica Patrick to race in the Cup Series next season.
Ultimately, the season will most be remembered for Stewart’s unrelenting charge and the closest points battle in championship history.
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.