Carl Edwards kept waiting for Tony Stewart to make a mistake.
Though Stewart had won four of nine Chase races and kept putting pressure on the points leader, on and off the track, Edwards believed that Stewart would finally crack, and that he, and not Stewart, would finally walk away with the Sprint Cup championship.
“I think that for all of the talk and all of the chest?pounding that he did, I could see that he was really … he was nervous about this, too,” said Edwards, who was the target of much chiding and trash-talking from Stewart in the weeks leading up to the season finale.
“I mean, they had to perform at a very high level, and I honestly thought that there was a good chance tonight of them making a mistake.”
They didn’t, neither Stewart nor his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Instead, Stewart, already a two-time Cup champion, rose to the occasion and produced one of the most clutch performances in NASCAR history to win perhaps the greatest championship battle the sport has ever seen.
Stewart, who barely made the Chase For The Sprint Cup in September, won the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to earn his third Sprint Cup title.
Stewart’s record fifth win in 10 Chase races forged a tie in points with Edwards, but Stewart took the championship based on his five wins to Edwards’ one.
“Those guys rose to the occasion and they beat us fair and square,” said Edwards, who finished second in the race and in the final standings.
“That was one of the greatest races of my life,” said Stewart, who won his 44th career race.
The championship was Stewart’s third and stopped the five-year reign of Jimmie Johnson, who had engine problems, wrecked and finished 32nd in the race. Johnson wound up sixth in the final standings, the worst points finish of his career.
The improbable victory by Stewart was not easy. He watched Edwards lead the final practice session and win the pole for the race, insisting all along that he had the car to beat and that it was Edwards who should be worried.
Then, just a few laps into the race, Stewart faced the first of several setbacks. With Edwards leading the race, a hole in the grille of his car forced Stewart to pit on lap 17, dropping him to 37th while his crew made repairs.
Stewart was working his way back through the field when he bumped the rear of the No. 00 and had to pit again for more repairs under the next caution flag, dropping him to 32nd.
Stewart then mounted another comeback, darting through the field and gaining 20 positions in 20 laps. By lap 23, Stewart had charged all the way through the field to take the lead for the first time.
Then, under the next caution period, Stewart’s crew had a lug nut stick in an air gun and he lost eight spots on pit road.
But Stewart rallied again, making a daring four-wide pass to get back to the front and regain the lead. In charging from the back to the front multiple times, Stewart passed 118 cars on the track, according to NASCAR.
“I feel like I passed half the state of Florida,” Stewart said.
But in the end, fittingly, he still had to beat Edwards, who led a race-high 119 laps. By leading the most laps, Edwards earned an extra bonus point, meaning Stewart had to win the race to win the championship.
Three rain delays and a fuel-mileage scenario that threatened to sap the drama out of the race but Stewart made his move on the final restart.
After the final caution flag for rain, Stewart was fourth and Edwards sixth for restart on lap 231. Stewart was in a good position, but had two huge roadblocks in front of him with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, two of the most aggressive and tenacious competitors in the sport.
But Stewart made a thrilling three-wide pass by Busch and Keselowski to take the lead on lap 232.
“That was one hairy moment where I felt like, ‘Oh me, I just lost this,” Stewart said. “It was a three-wide drag race to Turn 3.”
When Edwards swooped by Keselowski, it set up a head-to-head showdown for the race and the championship.
At that point, Edwards was still waiting, and hoping, for Stewart to make a mistake.
“I honestly thought that there was a good chance tonight of them making a mistake, of him over?driving, trying too hard,” Edwards said. “I was fully prepared for Tony to run out of fuel, for him to have a tire problem, for anything to happen, for a caution to come out and have a restart.”
It didn’t happen. With Edwards in his rearview mirror, Stewart hit his marks and drove 36 perfect laps around the 1.5-mile track to keep Edwards nearly a second behind him. He won the race and the championship by 1.3 seconds.
In the biggest race of the season, and possibly his career, the 40-year-old Stewart drove perhaps his greatest race. In fact, racing legend A.J. Foyt, Stewart’s life-long hero, said as much after the race.
“I have been racing for 31 years and I can’t even remember some of the races I have won,” said Stewart, who also has an IndyCar championship. “But I would have to say that, under the circumstances, this is definitely one of the greatest races of my life.”
Edwards had to concur after watching Stewart rally throughout the Chase and the final race.
“They showed a lot of mental toughness to watch us go lead the first half of this race essentially and not panic, not make mistakes,” Edwards said. “I thought they did a really good job.”
Afterward, the gracious Edwards held his head high and congratulated and honored Stewart, who matched Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip with his third championship.
“This night is about Tony Stewart,” Edwards said. “That is all I had at the end. … That’s it. That’s as hard as I can drive that race car.”
Though Edwards led the points standings most of the season and was a favorite entering the Chase, Stewart immediately established himself as a strong championship contender.
While Edwards continued to log top-five and top-10 finishes, finishing with a record average finish of 4.9, Stewart was winning races. He won the first two Chase races, won two more near the end of the Chase and then capped it by winning the season finale.
And in the end, it still came down to the final lap, producing one of the greatest season finales and championship races in NASCAR history.
“It just turned into this, you know, man?to?man battle,” Edwards said. “That's something that you don't see in this sport. It shouldn't happen.
“… I'm sure there will be people that will say, ‘This was fake, this was set up,’ because it's just so unbelievable. I mean, it's like a movie, you know.”
“If this wasn’t an exciting race to watch and one of the most exciting Chases to watch, you’ve got to go to a doctor immediately,” Stewart said.
In the end, Stewart paid homage to Edwards, praising him both for his performance and the mental toughness he showed throughout a pressure-packed championship race.
Despite being a two-time – now three-time – champion, Stewart believed it was he who pulled off a stunning upset and one of the greatest accomplishments of his career.
Unlike his other championships – in 2002 and 2005 – he didn’t win this one until the final lap.
“This is one of the coolest championship battles and I will respect it for the rest of my life,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a better guy, and I absolutely mentally tried to beat that kid up this week. I felt like I had to use everything in my arsenal to get his opportunity.
“… It was a David vs. Goliath battle to the end.”