By Doug Halberstadt
Tony Stewart was the last person other than Jimmie Johnson to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Stewart accomplished that feat back in 2005. Since then, Johnson has won the title for five consecutive seasons. Johnson’s stronghold on the top spot has finally come to an end.
In the closest finish in NASCAR history, Stewart won the 2011 championship by finishing tied with Carl Edwards. Both drivers ended the 36-race season with 2,403 points. By virtue of a tiebreaker (driver with the most wins during the season), Stewart was declared the champion and collected the third title (2002, 2005) of his career.
Stewart needed his victory in last Sunday’s (Nov. 20) rain-interrupted Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the Sprint Cup championship. The win was his fifth of the season — all coming in the 10-race Chase — and the 44th of his career. The bonus points for winning allowed him to make up a 3-point deficit to Edwards. They ended the Chase tied at the top of the standings. Stewart claimed the title with five victories this season to Edwards’ one.
The win in Sunday’s race did not come easy for Stewart. After being sent to the rear of the field twice during the race, he roared back to take the checkered flag.
Stewart’s trouble was caused by a hole in his grill. His misfortune came early enough in the race that his crew had time to repair it over a period of two separate yellow-flag pit stops. On the first stop, he fell back to the 40th position. After working his way up to the 23rd position, he brought it in for the second time, and then went back onto the track in the 38th spot.
From that point on, Stewart began his methodical move to the front and ended up finishing just ahead of runner-up Edwards. Martin Truex Jr. finished in the third spot, Matt Kenseth took home fourth and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five.
Stewart is the only driver to win a Cup championship in the pre-Chase format (2002) and the Chase format (2005,2011). He also becomes the ninth driver to win three or more championships in the 63 Cup Series seasons.
Johnson and his crew chief, former Rockfordian Chad Knaus, finished the year sixth in the final points standings. That is his lowest points position finish in the 10 seasons he has been a full-time Sprint Cup competitor.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the Nov. 23-29, 2011, issue