News & Media

Stewart, Edwards deliver a bout to remember

November 21, 2011, Joe Menzer,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- For 10 weeks, both drivers earned admiration from competitors and fans

This was an epic conclusion to a riveting 10-week mini-series that captivated NASCAR and all those who religiously follow it, plus perhaps many who were only dabbling in doing so at the beginning of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When veteran drivers Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards staged a duel for the ages Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it capped a comeback season that began with a fresh-faced rookie named Trevor Bayne seemingly coming out of nowhere to capture the Daytona 500. Stewart ultimately won Sunday's season finale and the 2011 championship, while Edwards finished a strong second in both. But together, they won the admiration of all who watched and even of those who participated in it with them.

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'm sure there will be people who will say that this was fake, this was set up, because it's just so unbelievable. I mean, it was like a movie," Edwards said.

Stewart came in three points behind Edwards in the Chase standings despite having won four of the first nine races in it. That's because Edwards was Mr. Consistency, making up for what he may have lacked in Stewart's flair by running smooth, mistake-free circuits lap after lap, race after race, week after week. His 4.9 average finish in the Chase was the best of any driver since the playoff system was introduced in 2004.

Edwards started Sunday's deciding race from the pole, while Stewart started 15th. Then Stewart got a hole punched in the grille of his No. 14 Chevrolet early in the race and fell back once, got up to the front, and fell back again after more damage to the front-end of his car. But he kept coming. He kept coming even after a pair of pit-road mishaps -- neither of which was his fault -- set him back yet again.

Stewart was relentless in his pursuit of Edwards, who flawlessly led all but a handful of the race's first 112 laps and went on to lead six times in all for a race-high total of 119. But where Edwards was flawless, Stewart was dogged. Where Edwards was spectacularly solid, Stewart was merely spectacular -- taking his car three-wide and four-wide and always toward the front.

Stewart's story

Stewart was asked afterward if the race had a special "epic-like" feel to it from the driver's seat perspective.

"The storyline was pretty amazing," Stewart said. "You've got a guy who goes out and is leading in the point standings. He qualifies on the pole and he's leading the first part of the race. The guy who's the underdog and is three points behind is having to jump hurdles and through hoops to salvage their day."

Then came the rain. There was one red-flag period brought on by the wet stuff that caused a one-hour, 14-minute delay, which Stewart, who had been ramping up the trash talk all week long leading up to the race, used to hurl more verbal abuse toward Edwards' No. 99 Ford camp.

As he walked from his own car to wait out the delay, Stewart strolled past engine builder Doug Yates and car owner Jack Roush, two of the talented brains behind Edwards' operation.

"Tell your boy to get up on the wheel because I'm on my way and I'm coming," Stewart said.

Edwards was leading at the time, but Stewart had rallied repeatedly from the earlier incidents and mistakes and was fifth. And true to his word, he kept coming for Edwards all night long.

"There were crew guys [during the rain delay] who were asking me, 'What are you doing? What's going on here? Where are you coming from?' " Stewart said. "And I told them, 'What else am I going to do? If I crash this thing on the way to the front, so be it.' It wasn't that I was throwing caution to the wind. I mean, we were trying to be calculating and methodical about what we were doing -- but the storylines were total opposites.

"You got the guy who's got the poker face going. I mean, he's leading laps -- and when he's not leading, he's second or third. He's right in the position where he wants to be at that point, and then you have the other the guy who was like, man, can I get there from here? You feel like you have the big fish on the hook and you're running out of line, and you're wondering if you're going to run out soon."

Storybook ending

Stewart never did run out of line. In the end, it was Edwards who ran out of time and grip in his older left-side tires. In the last 30 laps or so, even though there were 41 other cars jostling for position on the track, it seemed as if the two drivers were the only ones racing in the entire state of Florida.

"I think it was a true test," Edwards said. "It's been a battle. As best I can, right now, if I step back away from this and look at it I say, 'OK, here are two guys, one of which has a lot more experience in these situations than the other. He won half of the races in the Chase. And the other guy, I mean, he stood his ground, did a darned good job of forcing these guys to perform their best.'

"I'm proud of that. And I think the fact that it was that way, that it just turned into this, you know, man-to-man battle ... that was very interesting. That's something you don't see in this sport. It shouldn't happen. It only happened, I believe, because subconsciously everybody on these teams just raised their level of performance."

Edwards had attempted to deflect Stewart's off-the-track bluster for the last several weeks of the Chase. But in the end, he couldn't fend off Stewart's ferocious approach on it.

"To be honest with you, I was very, very impressed with Tony," Edwards said. "I think that for all of the talk and all of the chest-pounding that he did, I could see that he was really nervous about this, too. I mean, he had to perform at a very high level and I honestly thought that there was a good chance of them making a mistake, of him over-driving, trying too hard. They showed a lot mental toughness to watch us go lead the first half of this race essentially and not panic, not make mistakes. I thought they did a really good job."

In the end, the performance that Stewart's mentor A.J. Foyt said was the best of the winning driver's storied racing lifetime earned Stewart his third Cup championship and left Edwards wanting more. But for all those who watched this Chase unfold, and particular for all those who tuned in for the final race in it, there was literally no more to be had.

"Man, I feel like I passed half the state of Florida," said Stewart, upon being informed by NASCAR officials that he had passed 118 in all on the night.

Edwards, of course, was the one who mattered most.

"To have the week that we had, and the [verbal] sparring that we had at [Championship contenders'] media day, and then to come here and finish first and second, I don't know how it gets any better than that," Stewart added. "No matter what the outcome was, there would have been no shame in finishing second to him in the championship [Sunday night]. But to have that battle come down to him and me, that's epic."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.