Let's take a short break from politics. We may have mentioned in the past that we are closet petrolheads, and one of our favourite pastimes is watching the exploits of the drivers in the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing; NASCAR. Sky TV provides live coverage of every race, and we're hooked.
The NASCAR season ended yesterday in the closest and most exciting fashion. We won't even begin to try and describe how the points sytem works, but when the chequered flag dropped at Homestead Speedway in Florida, the closest Sprint Cup championship ever was decided; the NASCAR website reports:
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The talk came unceasingly, and in waves, like the turquoise waters of South Florida lapping up against the sand. It started three weeks ago at Martinsville, when he challenged Carl Edwards and warned that the points leader wouldn't sleep much the rest of the way. It continued into Texas, when he proclaimed to be in control of this championship race despite still playing from behind. And it peaked this past Thursday in Miami Beach, when he unleashed a torrent of smack talk that attempted to drive home the somewhat-crafted message that he had nothing to lose.
But the largest, loudest statement Tony Stewart made in the final stages of this astounding Chase was a three-word phrase he uttered with one lap remaining Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I got this," he said.
And he did, completing an unthinkable playoff run by claiming the championship in the only way he possibly could -- by winning the season finale to knot the points standings and edge Edwards in a tiebreak, Stewart's season-best five race victories proving to be the difference. Given how well Edwards had run the past two months of the season, given how the two remaining title contenders had driven in one another's tire marks the past few weeks, it seemed very clear for Stewart, in Homestead, only victory would do. That it came after two pit stop miscues, early damage to the front end of the No. 14 car, and a strategy shift that seemed doomed until it was bailed out by a rainstorm, only adds to the legend of a driver who in one night cemented his position among the best ever.
Sometimes, we forget how immensely talented Stewart is. We see the stubble and the waistline, hear the jokes about getting to the bottom of a carton of Schlitz. He seems very much like an everyman, a guy who could be your neighbor or bowling buddy, and not at all like the highly gifted individual that he is. It's been six years since his last championship, a stretch owned by a driver, Jimmie Johnson, who in or out of a firesuit absolutely looks the part. That span included a change of team and an added ownership role, time and circumstance combining to dilute how doggedly determined Stewart can be when he gets his teeth into something he wants.
During the course of this fall, that all returned in vivid display. Stewart bared his competitive fangs, loosened his needling tongue, and with a dramatic 10-week flourish snatched away a championship he once seemed to have no right to win. But there he was, driving around the Homestead track with the championship flag sticking out of the driver's side window opening of his Chevrolet, a delirious crowd celebrating in the grandstand. This was a race that left people agog, Edwards and Stewart performed at such a high level with so little margin for error. Edwards posted numbers that would have won the playoff any other year -- but not this one. Not with Stewart going from the back to the front again and again, making up for problems with performance, pulling off ridiculous four-wide passes, using so much of the race track he looked like an Earnhardt at Daytona.
All told, he passed 118 cars. He became the first driver to come from behind and win the championship by winning the final race. He shouldn't have been able to do it.
But he did. Victory Lane at the Homestead track was left empty -- it wasn't needed, as the race winner instead celebrated on the big stage set aside for the champion, them being in this case one and the same.
"We said all week -- we just go out and win the race, we don't have to worry about what he did, and that's what we did," said Stewart, who became the first owner/driver to win NASCAR's premier championship since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992. "If this doesn't go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don't know what will."
It was an incredible drive from Tony Stewart. Early in the race he drifted back as far as 40th in the 43-car field after his race-car struck debris left by another car. But he drove like a man possessed to win the race and all the spoils.
As mentioned above, Stewart became the first owner-driver to win NASCAR's championship since 1992. The responsibilities of team ownership are massive, and there was much conjecture when Stewart formed his own team four seasons ago that his best days as a driver had ended. He proved the doubters wrong with an emphatic run in the Chase to the Championship, winning five of the ten races.
With his third championship sewn up yesterday, Tony "Smoke" Stewart takes his place among NASCAR's all-time greats. It was thrilling sport, and great theatre.