There comes a time in any championship run in any sport where skill becomes irrelevant.
The talent you've worked your life to perfect takes care of itself. Your mental state turns into an sub-concious where you react with the decisions you've been engrained to make. Your surroundings fall away into a peculiar, white static, like something in a virtual reality, that you simply tune out.
You're totally focused on the task at hand: winning. You only see a trophy in front of you and you're locked in, determined to claim it.
We saw this performance from newly crowned NASCAR champion Tony Stewart this past weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart fell to the back of the pack twice due to car issues, lost ground as Carl Edwards racked up laps led and waited through a red-flag rain delay for over an hour.
None of it mattered.
Once he got going, Stewart darted through traffic like an ambulance during rush hour. He was routinely seen dropping out of the double-file herd as the cars entered turn 1 off restarts. The strategy worked in making up a few spots each time, so he tried it on the race's final restart and blew to the front of the pack.
True to form, in the most exciting Chase since NASCAR adopted the format in 2004, Carl Edwards made quick work of the cars between him and Stewart to grab the second spot and put the pedal down to chase after "Smoke." But, it was too late. Call it dust, call it smoke, either way that was all the No. 99 would see of Tony as the laps counted down.
Stewart was a man on a mission from the day he unloaded the No. 14 for the start of the Chase at Chicagoland two months ago. He wasn't going to give up the lead and the championship now that he was finally in the position he'd worked so hard to achieve.
Edwards said it best afterward that he'd given all he had and Tony flat out beat him. Stewart had made up his mind he was going to win a championship and nothing was going to get in the way of that.
His team put together what will go down as one of the all-time great Chase performances, as he won a record five of ten Chase races. The only thing that kept him from running away with the Cup was the consistency of Edwards, who finished with seven top-fives, including three second-place finishes, in that time.
There's an old, win-one-for-the-Gipper adage that will beats skill. It's a nice underdog motto, but I contend that the skill with the most will wins championships. That's what we saw from Stewart.
Edwards and the No. 99 Aflac team put a great car out on the track all Chase, and all season, for that matter. His seven second-place finishes were just two less than Stewart's nine top-fives on the season. But, for all his skill, all his focus and all his hard work, Edwards just didn't have that "it" factor that carried the No. 14 of Stewart-Hass Racing to a championship.
Stewart said for quite some time that he was going to go out on top this season. At the end of the Chase, it was that resolve that ultimately led him to achieving his goal. He put all the distractions out of mind and focused on the only thing that mattered: winning. That determination made Stewart the 2011 Sprint Cup champion.