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Year in Review: Stewart digs deep for third Cup championship

December 16, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Year in Review: After difficult regular season, Stewart found groove in Chase

Tony Stewart still shakes his head when he thinks about it.

Coming into the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, he honestly did not think his No. 14 Chevrolet team even belonged amongst the top 12 who were preparing to battle it out for NASCAR's most coveted championship.

'It's an honor'

Friday's Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony capped a frenetic week in which Tony Stewart and his No. 14 team were the toast of the town.

2011 Statistics

WinsFirst 26Final 10
Laps Led340573
Avg. Start19.014.2
Avg. Finish14.26.3

He had zero wins for the season and, as a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in addition to being the organization's top driver, already had decided to dismiss popular, hard-working crew chief Darian Grubb at season's end.

"We're just taking up the space of someone who actually might be able to contend," Stewart said during a pre-Chase media event in Chicago on the eve of the Chase's first race at Chicagoland Speedway.

A few days later, something crazy happened. Stewart won for the first time in 2011 at Chicagoland. A week later, he won again at New Hampshire.

Suddenly what had seemed to be a moribund, lost season for Stewart took on a whole new tone. Even back-to-back sub-par races at Dover and Kansas, where he finished 25th and 15th, respectively, to drop from first in the Chase points to seventh with six races remaining, could not completely stall out the team's sudden roll.

Kansas was followed by a corrective eighth-place finish at Charlotte, then a seventh in the crapshoot that is Talladega. Suddenly Stewart was back up to fourth in the standings as others encountered trouble.

"I fight hard in the race car," Stewart said later, explaining his determination.

Then came another set of back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas, moving him to second in the standings behind only Carl Edwards. The pair finished one-two at Texas, then battled each other all day the next Sunday at Phoenix before Edwards finished second and Stewart third -- setting up an epic showdown for the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway one week later.

Stewart trailed Edwards by only three points. But he knew the only way he could win the championship for sure was by winning the race.

Despite Edwards sitting on the pole and leading 119 laps in the 267-lap event, that's exactly what Stewart did to secure the third Cup championship of his storied career as he and Edwards again finished one-two in the race.

After having some time to reflect, Stewart was still stunned by how his latest, unlikely championship run unfolded after that afternoon in Chicago.

"Texas by itself was kind of surprising in that the top two guys in the point standings ran first and second in the race," said Stewart, who also won titles in 2002 and 2005 while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. "Then I don't think I would have been able to predict that we were going to run second and third at Phoenix, and actually run first and second again at Homestead.

"I'm just blown away by those stats, really. I truly feel it was one of the best battles in the history of the sport because of that."

Because of that belief, Stewart said what he will mentally take away most about the 2011 season is not any of his individual victories or even the fact that he hoisted the championship trophy at the end. What he said he will remember most is the art of the battle. It was a classic that will never be forgotten, he insisted -- not only in his own mind but in the memories of countless others.

"What I'll remember most about this season is just those last three weeks and that battle between Carl and I," Stewart said. "Something that I'm pretty proud of -- and I know Carl is, too -- is that 10 years down the road when they talk about this championship, it's not going to be about Tony Stewart winning it. It's going to be about the battle that Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards had. That's what people will remember most."

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.

After the fact, Stewart admitted that he believes coming from behind like he did to win in dramatic fashion was easier than it would have been if he had been playing defense in the frontrunner's position down the stretch, like Edwards.

"There's obviously a lot less pressure when you're trying to play catch-up than there is when you're trying to preserve a lead," Stewart said.

In winning the championship, Stewart became the first owner/driver to win a title since Alan Kulwicki did it with a much smaller organization in 1992. Working under a pre-Chase points format, Kulwicki also rallied from a 278-point deficit with six races remaining to win his championship.

"It's great to be a partner with [co-owner] Gene Haas and to win a championship as an owner/driver -- but I want to make sure that people understand that what Alan Kulwicki did [as an owner/driver] was truly remarkable, and what we did doesn't even compare in that category," Stewart said. "Alan did something that most likely will never be done again. So it's not fair to compare the two, for sure. He definitely did it the hard way."

Stewart did it more or less his way after deciding to leave JGR in 2008 to join forces with Haas and form SHR. Their first season of operation was 2009.

"I'm proud of what we did," Stewart said. "I'm proud that Gene wanted to make a change and wanted to take a big step in doing that, and he chose me to help him. It definitely was a risk to do what we all did together.

"But now, after just three years, it has paid off and I'm very happy to be able to celebrate with [Haas]. I know how much he's invested in the sport, and he's always kept his chin up through it all and worked hard. He gives us everything we need to do our jobs right, and I'm glad to see him have some success out of this."

Along the way, even the battle-hardened Stewart learned a valuable lesson. Never give up. Never think you're out of it.

Then again, despite what came out of his mouth during media interviews in Chicago, he obviously never really did. At least not deep down inside his mind and body.

That's something for him and everyone else inside the Sprint Cup garage to remember as they head off into 2012 and yet another season. At age 40, Stewart is looking for even more.

Championship Notes-n-Nuggets

• Tony Stewart won his third Cup Series championship in 464 starts. He won the 2002 and 2005 Cup championships.
• Tony Stewart is the only driver to win a Cup championship in the pre-Chase format (2002) and the Chase format (2005,2011).
• Tony Stewart has been in the Chase seven of eight seasons, all but 2006 when he missed the Chase by 16 points.
• Tony Stewart is the ninth driver to win three or more championships in 63 Cup Series seasons.
• Tony Stewart is the first driver to enter the Chase winless in the regular season and win the championship.
• This is the first time 1-2 in points have been tied at the end of the season.
• Tony Stewart made his first Cup start at Daytona in Feb. 1999 and has started every race since.
• Tony Stewart has at least one Cup victory in each of his 13 seasons -- the longest active streak.
• Tony Stewart is the eighth driver to win Cup Series championships for more than one organization and the first since Terry Labonte in 1996.
• Tony Stewart is the first owner/driver to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
• Tony Stewart is the seventh driver to win the championship and the season finale.
• This is the first time the champion and second in points finished 1-2 in the season finale.
• Tony Stewart's nine top-fives are the fewest top-five finishes by a champion since Bill Rexford had five in the 1950 season with only 17 starts.
• This is the 28th Cup Series title for a Chevrolet driver including the past seven.
• Tony Stewart is 40 years old (May 20, 1971) from Columbus, Ind. He is the oldest champion in the Chase era.
• Crew chief Darian Grubb earned his first Cup Series championship. He has been a Cup crew chief for 148 races.

"You never quit. You never stop thinking you can win races and championships. And the day that you do that is probably the day you need to look for something else to do," Stewart said. "You're always looking for more and you're always looking to add on, even if you're talking about multiple championships."

Watch all of Stewart's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below: