Pedley: Stewart’s Performance Was An All-Timer
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
A quick thought:
It wasn’t so much the fact that the 2011 Sprint Cup championship was so close that it had to be determined by the NASCAR tie-breaking system which qualifies it for instant-classic status.
It wasn’t so much that it came after several weeks of colorful verbal interplay by the two contenders – both of whom are among the biggest stars in American racing.
And it wasn’t the fact that it ended with the two contenders finishing first and second in the season-ending, championship-deciding Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
What will make this championship and its deciding race so freakin’ memorable for those who love and understand the sport of top-tier auto racing was the way Tony Stewart drove at Homestead on Sunday.
It may have featured the best performance by a NASCAR wheelman ever.
Tony Stewart was simply incredible. So incredible that Carl Edwards, who was only merely fabulous at the rain-splattered HMS 1.5-mile oval, was reduced to playing the bumbling straight man to Stewart’s masterful scene-stealing performance.
Stewart had spent the weeks leading up to the final showdown – which began with Edwards holding a
three-point lead over Stewart – verbally prodding the Roush Fenway Racing driver. He called him this, warned him about that and rubbed his face in the other thing.
Stewart may well also have been attempting to convince himself that he could could overcome Edwards, Edwards’ bigger Roush operation and the power-crammed FR9 engines which ate up tracks like Homestead this year.
But in the end, Stewart walked the walked and ran the run.
The Cup engines had barely achieved proper operating temperatures when potential disaster struck for Stewart. A piece of shrapnel from Kurt Busch’s disintegrating drive train hit the grill work of Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
No major damaged was caused by the flying metal, but the grill is the only thing that stands between track debris and the radiator and cooling ducts. The grill had to be fixed. During a long caution, Stewart’s crew taped a new grill into place.
But, when the race restarted, Stewart had 39 cars between him and race-leader Edwards.
Stewart, who won championships for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2002 and 2005, stayed cool, kept his crew cool, and sent to history-making work.
During an era of Sprint Cup racing when not a whole lot separates the best cars from the average cars in terms of speed, Stewart went on a pass-fest. Up top, down low, through the middle. Two cars a lap, three cars a lap, four cars a lap.
Stewart did things with his car that defied both common sense and physics.
Some of his best, most eye-rubbing work came on restarts, when he would attack with precision-
controled fury. A.J. Foyt, Stewart’s idle and numbersake of his car, must have be smiling that big Texas smile.
“That shows how bad I wanted to win this thing,” Stewart would say. “During the season you give guys a little more room than that, but when you are going for a championship, you can’t hold anything back. I was racing around good guys when I did that all night and we just could not leave it on the table, we had to go on the restarts. That was a strong suit for us all night. We took off that one restart I think 12th and came off the corner 5th or 6th on the outside. It is just an awesome night when your car drives that good and you can go get it done like that.”
The combo of skill and aggression often forms a molecular bond with luck in sports. It did for Stewart late in Sunday’s race. A decision to stretch fuel by Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb had the TV guys questioning the SHR team’s sanity.
But when rain brought out a caution at precisely the right time, it was Edwards who was suddenly in trouble. He had to pit to make it to the finish while Stewart was able to stay out and move ahead of Edwards, who had been leading.
From there, it was simply a matter of not making a mistake for Stewart.
A mistake? By Stewart? In this race? Please.
Be clear on this: Edwards did not give this championship away. He was beaten by perpahs the best at his definite best.
Yes, best. After Sunday’s performance, love or hate or remain ambivalent about the moody and unpredicatable Stewart, you have to rank his driving skills at or above those of the legends of the sport.
Who says? Well, how about Foyt? Reached after the race, the four-time Indy 500 winner said, ”He had to win it to win the championship and I think Tony drove the best race of his life.”
Edwards was so moved by what he saw that he sought out Stewart on the parade lap. Edwards walked up to the No. 14 Chevy, stuck his hand and head in the window and the two traded thoughts.
“I told him I hope we do the same thing next year, it will be fun,” Edwards said. “That is a good racer. He did a good job. His team did a good job. My guys did really well too. We aren’t going to walk away here feeling like we didn’t give our best performance. We did well and I stand behind all my guys and we will have that same group if I can do anything about it next year and they are going to have to beat us.”
They had better hope that Stewart is off his game if that all happens because Tony Stewart, we were all reminded over the last 10 weeks and especially Sunday night, is a indeed a good racer.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org