Season Review: Tony Stewart
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on December 2, 2011 | 11:47 A.M. EST
Stewart will be honored as the 2011 champion tonight in Las Vegas. (Photo: Getty Images)
Tony Stewart put himself into an elite group of drivers when he won his third career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this season in thrilling fashion.
Stewart turned in one of the most impressive performances in NASCAR history by winning five of the 10 races inside the Chase for the Sprint Cup schedule including a season-ending victory in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Although he was tied with Carl Edwards with the same number of points at the end of the campaign, Stewart was declared the champion by virtue of his five wins in a tiebreaker.
“It truly was one of the best battles, I feel like, in the history of the sport because of that, not just because of the outcome of who won, but just the fact that you had the top two guys that literally fought it out,” Stewart said of his fight with Edwards for the title. “And other than Phoenix, we ran second and third there, but we virtually raced for the wins and to win a championship at the same time.
“It wasn't just a head-to-head battle and who got more points than the other by finishing ahead. We were winning races and finishing in the top three to do it. To me, that's the part of it that kind of brings out the race fan in me.”
His charge to the crown was something even Stewart didn’t think was possible earlier in the season when he declared himself not worthy of being considered a championship contender.
"I will be perfectly honest," Stewart said after his August finish at Michigan. "At this point of the deal, if we're going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not because we're going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else who actually can run for a championship is trying to take -- because our stuff is so bad right now. We're wasting one of those top-12 spots right now."
But Stewart picked up steam heading into the Chase and did clinch one of the twelve playoff sports. In fact he opened the Chase with back to back wins at Chicagoland and New Hampshire.
He ran into trouble the next week at Dover and then put together a string of mediocre finishes before catching fire again and scoring consecutive victories in Martinsville and Texas.
That set up the basic “winner take all” Homestead finale with Stewart beating Edwards and securing the title.
After his championship runs in 2002 and 2005, Stewart now becomes one of a select group with three or more titles in NASCAR’s top division.
Seven-time champs Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are in that class as is Jimmie Johnson (five), Jeff Gordon (four) and three-time champs Lee Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.
“Every one of those drivers that have won three championships are icons in this sport,” Stewart said. “I somewhat honestly feel out of place being on that list. At the same time, I feel honored to be in it with them.
“I feel like it's an episode of ‘Sesame Street’ when you read that list: Which guy doesn't belong and which is not like the others? Those are some of the greatest names in this sport, and it truly feels like an honor to me to be a part of that group with them.”
Stewart’s accomplishment also was the first time an owner/driver had won the Sprint Cup title since Alan Kulwicki turned the trick in 1992.
“It's an honor to be in the same category with Alan Kulwicki," Stewart said. "But Alan did it all on his own. I've got a great co-owner with Gene Haas, and (general manager) Joe Custer helped put all this together with (Hendrick Motorsports owner) Rick Hendrick."
In the end Stewart’s stellar performance and battle with Edwards for the championship will be remembered as one of the greatest title fights in NASCAR history.
Stewart chalks up the effort to one of the entire Stewart-Haas Racing team.
“I think the way this whole Chase has worked out for us, for us to battle through a number of variables to get where we are is remarkable,” Stewart said. “But it shows the strength of the people that we have and you know it definitely -- it definitely makes you go, how did we do this, how did we overcome a lot of variables to get where we are. But at the same time, it makes it very gratifying because you are able to take a less than perfect scenario and have success with it.”
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