A host of dramatic and historic possibilities attended NASCAR’s show at Homestead; two tough competitors, a razor-close points chase, the leading team eying an historic championship three-peat, while its antagonist focused on first-time respect, and if those elements weren’t intense enough, bad weather lurked throughout. Nonetheless, when all was said and done, did the hype meet reality? Hell yeah, it did.
I’ve been covering motorsports for nearly 30 years and has been somewhat disappointed in the competitive intensity offered by today’s NASCAR that is long on marketing, and short on competition, particularly after Sprint Cup moved to its ‘Car Of Tomorrow’ spec-car. However, at Homestead, drivers Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards put on a show for the ages, and as Fox Business’ Dagen McDowell suggested afterward, ‘If you missed that race, you were an idiot.”
As the weekend began, Edwards was quiet and composed during practice and qualifying, and he and crew chief Bob Osborne produced a car package that produced a P1 qualifying result. On the other hand, however, Stewart, and embattled crew chief Darian Grubb had a hard time finding the handle early on, and Tony had to settle with a P15 start.
Nonetheless, after Martinsville Stewart had repeatedly said that his team had, “…nothing to lose and everything to gain.” So when the flag dropped, he immediately made it three-wide at turn 2, then started moving forward. For Edwards’ part, he simply and methodically set off in search for his first Sprint Cup Championship.
By lap 11, Stewart was confident enough to throw his car into any corner and pass anyone, any time, whether it be high, low or in the middle, and it looked like a head-to-head duel was in the offing between the two Chase leaders, until drizzle started to fall from the sky. Shortly afterward, the yellow came out, and the field pitted while the track was being dried. However, once underway, Stewart hit something on the racetrack that damaged the car’s front right valance, and the incident required a return to the pits. The delay pushed him all the way back to P40, just before the green flag dropped again on lap 22.
With Edwards leading, Stewart’s hopes were beginning to fade unless he could pull a rabbit out of his hat. Not only did he call for a rabbit, he must have invoked the ‘Energizer Bunny’, because in the ensuing 7 laps made up 13 positions, and was again charging to the front like a locomotive. Meanwhile Edward’s car was beginning to lose the handle a hair, and found himself in the midst of a series of lead fights.
This evolution continued with Edward’s leading, while Stewart moved ever closer to the front until lap 110, when a hard rain hit the racetrack. NASCAR threw a red flag, and while the field was parked on pit lane, Stewart suggested to his crew that he was ready to “…wear Carl Edwards out,” once the green flew again. Meanwhile, two of Edward’s teammates had gone to the garage due to engine failures, and the concern undoubtedly played a part in what happened next.
After the rain delay, Edwards immediately dropped to P2 at lap 118, while Stewart moved up to P3 behind him who was trailing Jeff Gordon. But Stewart still wanted a bonus point for leading, and at lap 123 he took the lead away from Gordon, while Edwards remained P3. At lap 135, everyone pitted, and Stewart’s guys put him in a hole by losing 8 spots on the stop.
Meanwhile, Osborne had been reminding Edwards to “…take care of the car,” so when the flag dropped again at lap 139, the #99 was just a bit less racy than in earlier restarts. As a result, by lap 148 Edwards was passed by Stewart for P6, who was by then flying, and the next lap moved up further to P3.
On lap 123, Tony took the lead again, and although Edwards tried to maintain his pace, the #14 was clearly becoming the class of the field as the laps began to wind down. On lap 158, they pitted again, and again Stewart’s crew produced a slow stop that dropped him back to P9.
Regardless of being pushed back, Tony took the lead once again on lap 153, and then pitted at lap 158. However, yet another glacial stop pushed him back to P9 on the restart. Regardless, as he was exiting the pits he told his crew that, since they’d already passed 63 cars that afternoon, getting back to the the front wasn’t going to “…be a problem.”
This became obvious shortly when Stewart proceeded to blitz the field by executing a series of three and four-wide moves to get to the front again. By lap 172, he was running P3 behind Edwards, who had benefited by a Bob Osborne call to tighten the car up. Between, laps 172- 202 the two stayed nose to tail until Edwards pitted for tires, while Stewart stayed out. This necessitated an enormous gamble on part of Grubb, since Stewart told Darian that he wouldn’t be able to maintain pace without fresh tires, and at the same time both of them were fretting about fuel pressure.
Nonetheless, they stayed out, but on lap 213 they finally had to pit and were about to get hammered when two things happened that changed everything. First, the team put together their best pit stop of the day, replacing four tires and delivering a full fuel-load in 14.6 seconds. Then, as Tony was leaving the pits NASCAR again threw a yellow for rain. This meant that Stewart would not have to pit, while Edwards and the leaders would, thereby putting the #14 in the lead once the leaders cycled through the leader’s stops.
The rain was minimal, but kept the field on the yellow flag until lap 231. On the restart Stewart went low to make it three-wide to take P2, then blew Keslowski off to take the lead again on lap 232. From then on he simply maintained between 1 – 1.5 second interval over Edwards to motor home and take the championship. The final points totals were tied, however, Stewart took the big check due to the tie-break based on number of wins.
As a result, Tony Stewart added another personal championship to his win total, while he and his team notched their first Sprint Cup Championship with him as an owner-driver. On the other hand, Carl Edwards literally did everything he could do to win, including taking the most laps, but the effort still ended up in a loss. Nonetheless, the 2011 campaign will undoubtedly go down as being one of the most intense, closely fought racing championships in history. Now, all we have to do is to hang on until February, when we’ll get to start the whole hairy, adrenaline-pumping deal up again, pretty cool don’t you think?