He rode in the backseat of a black Ford Expedition, traveling down an empty strip of road through South Florida last Thursday. In the distance, bathed in the soft morning sun, stood Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the final race of NASCAR's 2011 season. Holding a cellphone in his hand, Tony Stewart gazed through the tinted windows at the towering grandstands along the frontstretch, marveling at how, in three days, on that track, he would have a chance to pull off the greatest come-from-behind championship victory in the history of Sprint Cup racing.
"I will do anything and everything to win that race, including wrecking somebody if that's what it takes," said Stewart, 40, who, heading into Homestead, trailed Carl Edwards by three points, the closest that two drivers had ever been with one race left on the schedule in the eight-year history of the Chase format. "Two months ago we were completely out of this thing," said the driver known by the nickname Smoke, "but all I know now is that if I win the race, I win the championship. It's that simple. And I just have this overwhelmingly good feeling that we're going to get it done. I don't know if I've ever been as confident of anything in racing in my life."
Yet there was Stewart on Sunday afternoon at the 1.5-mile oval, the last car on the lead lap, stuck in 40th place less than 20 minutes after the green flag had dropped on the Ford 400. His number 14 Chevy had run over a piece of debris, which punched a softball-sized hole in the front grille, forcing him onto pit road for two extended stops. Worse for him, the leader was the rock-steady Edwards, 32, NASCAR's most dominating driver of 2011, who needed merely to stay ahead of Stewart on the track to win his first Cup title. But Stewart also controlled his own destiny; if he took the checkered flag, he would take the Cup as well. Even if Edwards came in second and gained an extra bonus point for leading the most laps, the two would finish the season tied in points. Stewart, who entered Homestead with four wins, would then be awarded the Cup based on the fact that he had more victories this season than Edwards (one)—the Chase tiebreaker.
Once his front grille was repaired and the race was restarted, Stewart shot through the field, passing one car after the next with video-game-worthy moves, sailing past on the high line and the low line, three-wide and four-wide. Watching Stewart from his home in Houston, A.J. Foyt, Stewart's boyhood idol and a man who knows something about winning, was mesmerized, believing he'd never seen Smoke drive with such fire, not even when he was younger and a notorious hothead. Edwards, looking in his rearview mirror, could see Stewart charging—closer, closer, closer.
While Edwards pitted under yellow with 53 laps left, Stewart stayed out on the track, gambling that he could stretch his fuel mileage and reach the finish line. The gutsy strategy propelled Stewart into third; Edwards was fifth. Then, with 35 laps to go, the 73,000 fans at Homestead thundered as Stewart seized the lead from Brad Keselowski. A lap later Edwards flew into second. After nine months of racing and more than 14,000 total miles of bumping and grinding for position on tracks across America, only some 50 feet now separated Stewart, a native of Columbus, Ind., and Edwards, who is from Columbia, Mo. Before the season NASCAR chairman Brian France openly pined for a Game 7 moment in the Chase. Now he had just that.
With nothing but open asphalt in front of him and his third Cup championship less than 50 miles away, Stewart expertly drove the high-line around Homestead, consistently coming within inches of hitting the wall. In his 31 years of racing—in go-karts, in Sprint cars, in IndyCar, in NASCAR—Stewart had never finished second when involved in a close championship battle. Under the lights at Homestead he closed out another title, as Edwards could never reach the rear bumper of Stewart, who at 8:03 EST blazed across the finish line 1.3 seconds ahead of Edwards. It was the first time in NASCAR history that a championship was decided by a tiebreaker.
"That's all I got," Edwards said after he crawled out of his car on pit road and hugged his mother, Nancy. "It's over now."
Make no mistake: Stewart's performance over the 10 races of the playoffs was the greatest of the Chase era (box, page 54). At Homestead he passed a total of 118 cars ("I feel like I passed half the state of Florida," he joked), won his fifth Chase race (a playoff record) and became the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to hoist the Cup trophy. "Tony is as talented as any driver I've ever seen, simple as that," said Jimmie Johnson, who had won the previous five Cup titles. "He also has the strongest will of anyone in the sport. There's no one in the garage who saw this coming. No one."
Not even, it turned out, Stewart himself. In fact, the story of how Stewart and the number 14 team turned their season around can be traced to an accident—one that occurred in Kannapolis, N.C., inside the headquarters of Stewart-Haas Racing. Before the opening Chase race, at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19, Darian Grubb, the crew chief of Stewart's team, was tinkering with the setup of the 14 car. At the time, he was desperate; word in the garage was that he was on the verge of losing his job. Though Stewart started the season at full throttle, leading more cumulative laps (222) over the first three races than anyone in the series, he slumped badly in the summer and fell out of the top 10 in points. Stewart was so frustrated at Michigan International Speedway in June that he proclaimed he didn't belong in the Chase because he'd only be "wasting" the spot of a driver who could actually win the title.
All summer Stewart had complained that the balance in his car was off, and as a consequence he rarely felt comfortable rolling through the corners at top speed. He alternated from being "tight" (meaning the front end of the car slid up the track when he turned) to "loose" (meaning the back end slipped up the track through the turns) from one pit stop to the next. This is normally a terminal, championship-crushing problem in NASCAR, but then Grubb put his hands on the car and tweaked its setup, altering the balance. Voil√†! Stewart finished the regular season ninth in points, but once the Chase began he suddenly flashed newfound speed, motoring through the corners as fast as anyone in the series. He won the first two playoff races, at Chicagoland and New Hampshire Motor Speedway—his first victories of the season. "To be honest, we're still a little confused as to what we did and how that fixed everything," said Grubb. "But sometimes accidents work in your favor."
Stewart reached Victory Lane in four of the first eight races, tying a Chase record for most playoff wins set by Jimmie Johnson in 2007 (and matched by Johnson in '09). The only reason Stewart trailed Edwards by three points going into Homestead was because Edwards and his number 99 Ford team were ruthlessly consistent in the playoffs—just as they'd been all season. Over the 36 races, Edwards led all drivers in top five finishes (19), top 10s (26) and weeks spent atop the standings (21). Under the pre-Chase points system, which NASCAR employed for 29 years, Edwards would have won the title by 78 points over Kevin Harvick and 87 over Stewart. Edwards reached Victory Lane only once in 2011 (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6), but in the Chase he never finished lower than 11th, which was a playoff record. His average finish of 4.9 in the Chase was the best ever for the playoffs. "We let a few checkered flags slip away," Edwards said on the eve of Homestead. "The way this format is set up is that you have to be consistent, and that's exactly what we've been. Jimmie Johnson has proven there are different ways to win the championship."
This was a disappointing Chase for Johnson. A here-we-go-again vibe fell over the garage when Johnson took the checkered flag at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 9, but then he crashed violently the following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he came in 34th. He wasn't the same driver for the rest of the playoffs and was mathematically eliminated from title contention on Nov. 13 after he finished 14th at Phoenix, marking the first time since 2003 that he wasn't in the hunt at Homestead. "It's hitting me like a punch in the gut that our run is over," Johnson said last Friday as he stood under an awning sprouting from his motor coach in the Homestead infield and watched raindrops fall from the sky. "I was the one holding the wheel at Charlotte, so I take full responsibility for us not winning again. We're already in meetings planning for next year. I really believe we have more titles in us."
On a spring evening in Charlotte in 2008, everything changed for Tony Stewart. He had recently been offered 50% ownership of Haas CNC Racing, which received engines, chassis and engineering support from Rick Hendrick, the owner of the sport's most powerful team, Hendrick Motorsports. As Stewart weighed whether to leave Joe Gibbs Racing, where he had won Cup titles in '02 and '05, to become the only full-time driver in the series to also own a team, he visited with Hendrick. Stewart's first question was whether there would be an open-book policy between the teams' crew chiefs and drivers when it came to car setups, wind-tunnel data and engineering information. "I'll give you all the backing you need," Hendrick told Stewart. "I won't let you fail."
Stewart hasn't. Since opening Stewart-Haas Racing before the 2009 season, Stewart has qualified for three straight Chases. While he makes final decisions at SHR when it comes to budgets and investments, Stewart, who also has a stake in three racetracks and four lower-level teams, cedes the day-to-day running of the team to others. "You can't compare me as an owner to what Alan Kulwicki did in 1992, because he built his team by himself," Stewart says. "I'm just a piece of the puzzle." (It is a puzzle that keeps getting rearranged: Despite the championship, sources say, Grubb is unlikely to remain in 2012.)
Late on Sunday night, nearly four hours after he'd won the most improbable title of his career, the driver and owner of Stewart-Haas Racing strolled back onto the track one last time, looking up into the dark, empty stands with a Schlitz Tall Boy in his hands. "That feeling of confidence I had three days ago never went away during the race, even when we fell back to 40th," Stewart said. "None of us panicked. We just weren't going to be denied. Not here. Not tonight."
"ALL I KNOW NOW IS THAT IF I WIN THE RACE, I WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP," SAID STEWART. "IT'S THAT SIMPLE."
TONY'S WINNING WAY
Consistency counts—but only to a point. Here's a look at the top drivers in the Chase era, ranked by average finish in the 10 playoff races. Carl Edwards's metronomic run leads them all, but it wasn't enough to beat out Smoke's record five Chase W's.
DAVID KENT/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (CRASH)