Stewart-Edwards duel epic, historic

BY Larry McReynolds • November 21, 2011

I know it is an over-used cliché, but if it ever fit, then 2011 is definitely the place. This year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup season was simply one for the ages.

I think we are going to have a number of years pass before we can truly and fully appreciate what we witnessed this season.

Just look at some of these numbers. We had 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup points races this year and we had 18 different winners. That is simply incredible.

Look at the fact of those 18 winners – five of them won their very first Cup race this year. So in addition to never knowing who was going to win on any given weekend, we also had it sprinkled with the excitement of first-time winners.

Then when you turn to Tony Stewart, well you run out of superlatives. Here is a guy that had won two NASCAR Cup championships and nearly 40 races driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then all of a sudden, he announces in the middle of 2008 that he is leaving and joining forces with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing.

Now you have to remember the risk Stewart took. He was leaving a rock-solid organization run by Coach Gibbs and pairing up with an organization that, despite being well-funded, simply struggled to even make races. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Tony up at night, he was also adding the role as car owner into the mix.

Smoke obviously saw something in the organization that made him feel comfortable. I am sure having first-hand input in the direction and leadership of the place eased a lot of his concerns. The group was successful in its first and second years of this new deal, but Tony struggled a lot in what we call our regular season, which are the first 26 races, this year.

He and his team were in position to win a couple races early on this year, but strategy came back and bit them. By the time the checkered flag waved at Richmond International Raceway in September signaling the end of the regular season, Stewart had only accumulated three top-five finishes in 26 events.

Then Tony goes and tells anyone who will listen that his team doesn't deserve to be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and is taking up a spot for some more deserving team.

Now on the other side of this championship equation is Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing camp. Back in 2008, Carl won nine races but came up short, finishing second to Jimmie Johnson for the championship. This year was a different road to the championship hunt for Carl. If ever there was a model of consistency, it was the No. 99 car.

Edwards only had the one win back in March at Las Vegas. The irony of that is, Las Vegas was Tony Stewart’s race to lose. Unfortunately, a bad call late in the race cost Smoke the win and Cousin Carl took the checkers. Edwards’ points lead over Stewart was only three points going into Sunday’s season finale. Do you know who many bonus points Carl received for his one win at Las Vegas? Yup, he received three bonus points.

Carl put up championship numbers this year. He consistently finished in the top five or top 10, just racking up the points. If you want an even better example of how consistent he was just look at all 10 of this year’s Chase races. Carl’s worst finish in the 2011 Chase was 11th.

The man entered Homestead in first place in the points, with a slim three-point lead. Carl goes out, runs hard all day and night long, brings his car home second, but still lost the championship because Tony won the race tying them in points. The established NASCAR tiebreaker in cases like this is most wins, so Tony was declared the champion.

So you had Carl as the model of consistency. You had Tony, who couldn’t win a race during the regular season telling the world he didn’t deserve to be in the Chase. So Sunday night, after nine months and 36 races, 10,000-some laps and 13,000-some miles, those two class acts ended in a dead tie in the points.

Now if anyone ever questions whether winning races doesn’t have more value than ever before in NASCAR, our 2011 season is the one to show them. There was absolutely no way that Stewart would have won the title if he hadn’t won those five races in the Chase.

You heard many times over the weekend how different the two title rivals are. Their personalities are different. Their car manufacturers are different. Edwards was Mr. Consistent all season long while Stewart had to win half the races in the Chase just to close the gap between them. Folks, the differences go even farther with Carl being a right-handed guy while, you guessed it, Tony is left-handed.

The thing I loved was how they raced each other so hard. These last three races they finished within one position of each other. Sunday they finished first and second. Both drivers knew coming into Sunday’s race that they only had to worry about one thing and that was winning the race. I’ve been in NASCAR for 31 years and it was the only race where you had to win the race to win the championship. How cool is that?

Can anyone ask the 2011 season to end on any better of a note?

I am really excited about 2012. I just have to say this – we are less than 100 days until the 2012 Daytona 500 on FOX. I also know that it’s going to take a lot of hard work for our sport as a whole to top what we have seen this season, and especially what we saw at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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