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Caraviello: Stewart claims third title by winning it the only way he could

November 21, 2011, David Caraviello,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Stewart claims third title by winning it the only way he could

The talk came unceasingly, and in waves, like the turquoise waters of South Florida lapping up against the sand. It started three weeks ago at Martinsville, when he challenged Carl Edwards and warned that the points leader wouldn't sleep much the rest of the way. It continued into Texas, when he proclaimed to be in control of this championship race despite still playing from behind. And it peaked this past Thursday in Miami Beach, when he unleashed a torrent of smack talk that attempted to drive home the somewhat-crafted message that he had nothing to lose.

But the largest, loudest statement Tony Stewart made in the final stages of this astounding Chase was a three-word phrase he uttered with one lap remaining Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Winning his way

Tony Stewart's fifth Chase victory made him a three-time Cup Series champ. Smoke needed every one as he and Carl Edwards finished in a dead heat and Stewart won on the tiebreaker.

"I got this," he said.

And he did, completing an unthinkable playoff run by claiming the championship in the only way he possibly could -- by winning the season finale to knot the points standings and edge Edwards in a tiebreak, Stewart's season-best five race victories proving to be the difference. Given how well Edwards had run the past two months of the season, given how the two remaining title contenders had driven in one another's tire marks the past few weeks, it seemed very clear for Stewart, in Homestead, only victory would do. That it came after two pit stop miscues, early damage to the front end of the No. 14 car, and a strategy shift that seemed doomed until it was bailed out by a rainstorm, only adds to the legend of a driver who in one night cemented his position among the best ever.

Sometimes, we forget how immensely talented Stewart is. We see the stubble and the waistline, hear the jokes about getting to the bottom of a carton of Schlitz. He seems very much like an everyman, a guy who could be your neighbor or bowling buddy, and not at all like the highly gifted individual that he is. It's been six years since his last championship, a stretch owned by a driver, Jimmie Johnson, who in or out of a firesuit absolutely looks the part. That span included a change of team and an added ownership role, time and circumstance combining to dilute how doggedly determined Stewart can be when he gets his teeth into something he wants.

During the course of this fall, that all returned in vivid display. Stewart bared his competitive fangs, loosened his needling tongue, and with a dramatic 10-week flourish snatched away a championship he once seemed to have no right to win. But there he was, driving around the Homestead track with the championship flag sticking out of the driver's side window opening of his Chevrolet, a delirious crowd celebrating in the grandstand. This was a race that left people agog, Edwards and Stewart performed at such a high level with so little margin for error. Edwards posted numbers that would have won the playoff any other year -- but not this one. Not with Stewart going from the back to the front again and again, making up for problems with performance, pulling off ridiculous four-wide passes, using so much of the race track he looked like an Earnhardt at Daytona.

All told, he passed 118 cars. He became the first driver to come from behind and win the championship by winning the final race. He shouldn't have been able to do it.

But he did. Victory Lane at the Homestead track was left empty -- it wasn't needed, as the race winner instead celebrated on the big stage set aside for the champion, them being in this case one and the same.

"We said all week -- we just go out and win the race, we don't have to worry about what he did, and that's what we did," said Stewart, who became the first owner/driver to win NASCAR's premier championship since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992. "If this doesn't go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don't know what will."

It will, for the mesmerizing quality of the competition as much as for how many times the title seemed lost on Sunday night. Less than 20 laps in, Stewart had to come to pit road with a gaping hole in his front grill, damage likely incurred by debris dropped from another vehicle, and potentially crippling on an aerodynamically-sensitive 1.5-mile track. His crew replaced the screen and re-taped the front end, but that reclamation work left Stewart back in 40th place. Suddenly his deficit had grown to 38 points, and he was chasing a No. 99 car that had been fastest in final practice and qualifying. No matter. Stewart bared down in the car, just like he had bared down on Edwards in their media appearance together, showing that same bordering-on-cocky confidence he's displayed since winning at Martinsville almost a month ago.

"They're going to feel like s--t when we kick their a-- after this," Stewart growled on the team radio.

Back he came, moving through the field like other cars were standing still, advancing to fifth before rain halted the event for more than an hour under a red flag. Stewart lost spots on pit road when his crew had trouble getting lug nuts off a tire, he made up spots on the race track with moves like a crazy four-wide pass that saw the No. 14 car drop all the way to the bottom of the track. He lost spots when a lug nut stuck inside an impact wrench, he made up spots by moving to the top of the race track and giving Edwards a bump. It was dizzying to watch, particularly at one point when Stewart passed six cars in two laps.

"That shows how bad I wanted to win this thing," Stewart said. "During the season you give guys a little more room that that. But when you're racing for a championship, you can't hold anything back. I was racing around good guys when I did that all night, and we just could not leave it on the table."

His crew wasn't perfect. His car wasn't perfect. But Stewart was, driving with such determination and ferocity that it was difficult to believe even as it was being seen. Which is why it seemed so strange when the No. 14 team stretched a fuel run to try to win the race on one more pit stop, a decision that left Stewart sliding into his pit box on fumes, and was aided by more rain that allowed the cars to coast slowly around the track under caution. From there it was all Tony, this occasionally temperamental and sometimes maddening driver wheeling the race of his life, making the car move at will, speeding away from Edwards at the end, appearing the absolute master of a track where he hadn't finished better than eighth in five years.

"That's my maximum effort, right there," said Edwards, who on Stewart's victory lap stuck his head inside the car to offer congratulations, "and Tony beat us."

As well as Edwards had run during the course of this season -- he led the points for 21 weeks, and went the last 13 races without a finish worse than 11th -- it was really the only choice Stewart had. Had Stewart finished second and Edwards third, Edwards would have won the title. Under almost any other scenario, Edwards would have won the title. By all logic, Edwards should have won the title. And yet there was Stewart, joining the ranks of three-time champions like Pearson and Waltrip and Yarborough, and getting there the only way he could.

"He had to win it to win the championship," said Stewart's racing hero, A.J. Foyt. "I think Tony drove the best race of his life."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.