Kyle Busch Crowned Champion in Candyland Chase, What’s Next?

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

With a season that began in a hospital room and a fear that he might never race again, Kyle Busch stood tall as King Kandy at Homestead-Miami, with the final lap call that “The checkered flag goes to Kyle Busch, and the Sprint Cup Championship goes to Kyle Busch!”

Sidelined for the initial 11 races of the season because of a broken right leg and left foot sustained in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Daytona race crash in February, Kyle Busch finished off one of the most remarkable comebacks in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, with it, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after eleven seasons in the sport.

Busch, piloting the M&M’s Racing Crispy Camry, delivered a plethora of “firsts” by winning the season finale. In additional to his inaugural Championship, Busch brought home his first win ever in a Chase playoff race, the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing, the first title for his long-time sponsor Mars/M&M’s after 25 years in the sport, and the first title for his rookie crew chief Adam Stevens.

Shrewdly, Kyle Busch matured this season and realized that he could not get it done on his own, proclaiming “I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we did if it wasn’t for this injury.” During Busch’s comeback, he showered accolades on his crew chief Stevens. “He’s obviously a great leader of this team,” Busch said. “I love him to death. He’s done a really good job, and obviously we’re having fun doing what we’re doing.” That’s stellar praise from a turbulent driver who hasn’t always a solid rapport with his previous crew chiefs.

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David  Graham)

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Many were surprised by Busch’s resurgence and patience to overcome the turmoil and physical challenges of his comeback. Given his prior success in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series and his self-proclaimed boast that he was “King of the Minors”, the only question mark that remains is how many future titles Busch will capture now that he has finally delivered on the promise of his wheelman talents and demonstrated an appreciation for the collective contribution of his team and partners to his success.

Remarkably, NASCAR closed out a drama-laden second year of its contemporary elimination-style Chase playoff, with the four surviving Championship contenders once again battling up-front in the final laps and facing the necessity to finish first to both close out the season-ending race and capture the Sprint Cup crown. As reigning 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick finished second 13 times this year, including the final race at Homestead, and that still was not enough to secure the title.

The NASCAR Chase Championship playoff seems to have elevated the engagement of fans, with the both of its last two races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami being sold-out; as well, the Homestead TV ratings delivered the highest overnights since 2005. So will the storybook finish leave NASCAR fans wanting even more in 2016? As the sport heads to the offseason, NASCAR must continue its metamorphous into a more exhilarating product, inculcate its emerging young stars, and showcase innovative technologies to help revitalize its aging fan base, by attracting new (read younger) fans with shorter attention spans. Amid a plethora of entertainment options, NASCAR remains at a critical inflection point to stay relevant as it looks towards the 2016 season by resolving several thorny matters:

  • Acquiring a New Title Sponsor for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Sprint, and its merged predecessor Nextel, have been the entitlement sponsor of NASCAR’s top series since 2004, so this selection entails a monumental investment and long-term commitment, and is critical to the sport’s continued vitality in staying relevant to its mainstream audience.

Whoever the NASCAR Series title sponsor will be, substantial time will be required to develop customer activation programs, establish corporate on-track hospitality, and build a collective marketing/branding campaign, so NASCAR must move quickly to vet and secure a new partner. At the same time, the dollar investment by a Corporate partner is nothing to sneeze at; only a finite number of companies have the financial resources to be willing to spend anywhere from $75 million to $100 million per season. Ideally, a forward-looking technology company (Apple, Google, Amazon – are you listening?) flush with cash would be a great partner, particularly to showcase the integration of technology into the sport.

  • Success in Implementing the Low Downforce Aero Package. For 2016, NASCAR has adopted a new low downforce aero spec with the expectation that the racing will be tilted back in the hands of drivers. Now, as race teams prepare for 2016 and build a strong baseline of data, the fan anticipation is that the racing will be even better (meaning closer with more passing).

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

Moreover, with the upfront lead time, the new low downforce rules should allow Goodyear to dial-in tire combinations for each track that complement the new package and produces more fall-off, which hopefully leads to more passing. A softer tire, like the one built for Darlington, required drivers to manage their tire while slipping and sliding all over the track. If the new Aero package does not deliver better on-track competition, the Chase drama itself will not sustain the growth of the NASCAR franchise.

  • Elevating Brand Identity for XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. Both series are struggling with attendance and sagging ratings, particularly at stand-alone events not partnered with a Cup race. This weekend, with Roush Fenway Ford driver Chris Buescher only needed to finish 14th to clinch the second-tier XFINITY Series Championship, we got a mostly ho-hum race as Sprint Cup drivers dropped down to whip up on the rest of the field.

Both of these Series have already slashed allowable entries in each race (from 43 to 40 in XFINITY and 36 to 32 in Trucks) to weed out uncompetitive, poorly funded teams and ideally improve the on-track racing and available purse money.

In both the XFINITY and Truck Series, a champion is still determined via a season-long points system. Might it be a time for a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship type of system to decide the Champion in these series? Apparently, NASCAR thinks so, with its Official Fan Council of 16,000 members receiving an opinion survey in the past two weeks to float this idea, including a suggestion of restricting regular Sprint Cup Drivers from participating during the playoffs in these two series.

  • Promoting Future Stars and Technologies to Capture the Youth Demographic. NASCAR has a bright crop of talent coming up through the ranks, but now more than ever Sprint-cup rides are limited by sponsorship dollars. Nevertheless, several drivers are breaking through this coming year, including Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both of whom come with renowned racing pedigrees and are proving to be the total package.

Elliott, 19, is stepping into the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports ride vacated by Jeff Gordon, while Blaney, 20, will run for the Wood Brothers (with support by Ford Performance and a technical alliance with Team Penske). These two young guns have both won races in NASCAR’s lower divisions and present a perfect opportunity for NASCAR to showcase a meaningful battle for the 2016 Rookie of the Year, as well as a potential breakthrough berth in the Chase.

As well, to broaden its appeal to technology savvy fans, NASCAR is exploring ways to digitally deliver its product, taking fans more into the cockpit and chatter, with the 2016 introduction of the “digital dash”. This customizable dashboard of 16 preset screens is a great way to immerse fans in the driver experience, and the sooner the better. In a sport where it is hard to connect to what the driver is experiencing in the cockpit, fans will benefit from deeper access to more comprehensive real-time data, along with expanded digital platforms to access in-car race broadcasts. The NBCSN HotPass simulcast this weekend was a great starting point, offering a four way split screen of each Championship contender, along with live race communication between drivers and crew.

On our holiday wish list, we hope that NASCAR leads the way in reinvigorating its product with an improved level of on-track competition, promoting new stars with an uncompromising and fresh mindset, and capitalizing on emerging technologies to inclusively bring fans into the cockpit. Otherwise, the waning interest in America’s showcase racing series does not bode well for the fortunes of any of America’s besieged racing series, including the Verizon IndyCar and TUDOR United Sports Car series.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

NASCAR and Formula One: Are You Man Enough To Succeed?

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

One more race at Homestead, Florida will decide who will be the 2015 Sprint Cup Champion. Was it a year to remember or a year to forget? It’s a little of both. Will NASCAR actually do what it takes in 2016 to succeed?

The NASCAR fan base is as polarized regarding the Chase format as Formula One is regarding it’s hybrid powerplants. In modern motorsports the wedges that have been driven between the fans has been to the determent of the sport regardless of what discipline it is.

In NASCAR, what started as a small problem, how to make the sport more interesting, resulted in the Car of Tomorrow debacle right through to the wholesale change of normally aspirated engines in Formula One to bizarre, unmanageable hybrid powerplants.

The world of motorsports has become tantamount to a plane crash: Something goes awry and then the pilots keep pushing buttons until the plane crashes.

2015 is a year to put behind us in both NASCAR and F1. 2016 will be a transitional year for NASCAR in that we will move to low down-force cars that are actually harder to drive from an aero point of view rather than hip-hop style camber being required to make the car turn.

For Formula One, 2017 couldn’t arrive too soon. The outrageous costs associated with these Frankenstein hybrids have damn near driven the sport to the brink. No independents can keep up under the current rules which have to be endured until 2017.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want's more.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want’s more.

In NASCAR The Gen 6 car proved worthy, but also too good on sticking to the track, so moving towards the low down-force set-up is a great thing. But is it too little too late? We won’t know until 2016 is mid-season and moves along towards 2017. Darlington’s viewership was down 17% over 2014. That’s very bad, very, very bad.

Redemption wont come overnight, it’s easier to keep fans you have than to gain new ones, but that NASCAR’s challenge. One issue in it’s favor, besides the low down-force, is the new influx of younger drivers. Perhaps they and their social skills can bring along a new group of viewers and fans, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

So, the NASCAR season will end up this weekend either crowning an outgoing champion in Jeff Gordon, or possibly an upset victory for Martin Truex, Jr. In Formula One Lewis Hamilton has taken his third World Championship in a year so mediocre, except for the USGP, that people will be almost forced to watch another year with nearly the same rules. Only the diehard fans may hang around for the ‘Great Engine Change’ of 2017.

NASCAR? NASCAR had better put on one hell of a show from race one in order to stop the femoral bleeding of viewers. I believe they can, however, but it will take an on-track product that dazzles along with very, very savvy social media to nudge the fans back into place and to grab those who never cared.

2016 will be the year of reckoning for both of these sports but will be married to social media like never before if they expect to keep people interested. The presidential elections are going to dominate social media, particularly Facebook and both of these styles of motorsports had better grab as many of those eyeballs as possible.

The political conversation will be dominated by the very same demographic as the motorsports fans for both NASCAR and Formula One. Who will take advantage of that?

As Alec Baldwin’s character in the infamous film, ‘Glen Gary, Glen Ross’ said: “They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

Well Ladies and Gentlemen, are you?

 

 

 

 

NASCAR: Homestead Odds Back Harvick, But Gordon is Favorite

He has no friends to rally around him, but Truex could pull off a stunning upset.

He has no friends to rally around him, but Truex could pull off a stunning upset.

The Championship Four title contenders of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are now poised to hit the track at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday to settle NASCAR’s 2015 Sprint Cup Championship. Sold out for a second consecutive year under the revamped Chase playoff format, Homestead-Miami Speedway will be sweltering, not due to weather, but instead due to the drama surrounding this season-ending spectacle.

Each of these four title contenders has had a grueling season to get to the finish line, and now that crunch time is here, likely possess a low threshold of tolerance for fellow competitors.

While not at Super Bowl stratospheric prices, a grandstand ticket on the finish line can be obtained for $500, and might just be worth it for the memories, unless you’re a Ford fan.

Paradoxically, the Ford Ecoboost 400 Championship race will not have any Ford drivers in the mix to represent its Dearborn headquarters. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski needed to win at Phoenix; instead, the Team Penske Ford dynamic duo will be resigned to waiting until next year and speculating as to what might have been done differently.

So, with next Sunday’s race commanding prime time slotting on the NBC network, how do the Championship Four contenders rate in their quest to claim the coveted Sprint Cup?

As the reigning NASCAR Champion, Kevin Harvick attained the pinnacle of his racing career by capturing his first Sprint Cup title last season. This, year, Harvick has shown no signs of downshifting; indeed, Harvick is even fierier, with a 2015 season average finish of 9.1, compared to 12.9 in 2014.

Kyle busch, should he win, would be the definition of "The Comeback Kid".

Kyle busch, should he win, would be the definition of “The Comeback Kid”.

At Homestead-Miami, Harvick has the best average finish of all contenders over the last 10 races at 6.7, having won last season’s Homestead race to climax his Championship Chase. Harvick has been the odds-on favorite throughout this season’s Chase playoff, and remains in the pole position heading to Homestead, particularly given how strong he looked at Phoenix, ending up with a rain-shortened second place finish after leading 143 laps.

For Jeff Gordon, Homestead-Miami has not been his most prolific track, having collected only one of his 93 storied career victories back in 2012. However, Gordon has still run strong on the 1.5 mile Homestead oval, with an average finish of 10.6 over his 16 career finishes.

Certainly, the preeminent feel-good Championship story would be for Gordon to definitively fulfill his “Drive for Five” quest upon his retirement. With his superstar career spanning 24 years, Gordon’s crossover appeal helped take NASCAR into the mainstream sports audience. Having an All-Star walk off as a Champion is an extraordinary event, reminiscent of legends such as John Elway, who concluded his 16-year NFL career by collecting his second Super Bowl ring after the 1998 season. For Gordon, the transformer of NASCAR is set to retire with his final shot at obtaining the elusive fifth Championship that he has pursued for the past 14 years, spanning more than half of his career.

Under the pre-Chase point system, some pundits say Gordon might have won two more Championships since his last title in 2001. Gordon laughs upon recalling that when he first learned of the new Chase system back in 2004, he felt that NASCAR President Mike Helton couldn’t be serious. Now, if able to win under the latest reincarnation of the Chase, Gordon exclaims “that would be poetic justice.”

My colleague Michele Rahal calls out that Gordon is the only eligible Hendrick Motorsports driver and that Papa Hendrick has delivered the message to the rest of his stable that they are to do everything they can to push Gordon to the Championship. HMS will make sure that the #24 team is fully prepping its finest car for his final ride. Reiterating his team directive at Phoenix, Papa Hendrick testifies that he is “really excited about going down to (Homestead) with the opportunity (for Gordon) to go out a Champion…if he can finish it off, what a storybook ending.” Hendrick will miss Gordon, and will do everything imaginable to give Gordon the royal sendoff.

Kyle Busch has a slot in the Sprint Cup Series championship finale for the first time in his career. For a racer who missed the first eleven Sprint Cup races of this season after breaking his leg in a devastating Daytona crash, Busch is certainly the Cinderella story in terms of a potential comeback.

Likewise, team owner Joe Gibbs Racing is in the same position as Hendrick in delivering team orders. Having the expansive resources of a four car team, JGR will strive to rally around Kyle Busch with the goal of bringing its first Cup Championship to the Toyota Racing organization.

At Homestead, Busch’s Sprint Cup career stats are relatively anemic, with an average finish of 23.1. His best finish of 4th came in 2012. However, Busch has supernatural talent when it comes to wheeling a stocker, and has shown that he knows how to get around the progressive banking of Homestead-Miami Speedway, at least in the XFINITY Series. In his last six XFINITY races at Homestead, Busch has won twice, and finished no lower than 3rd.

Often, Busch uses the XFINITY Series combo weekends to prep for the main Sprint Cup event the following day. At Phoenix Raceway on Saturday, Busch dominated the desert in his XFINITY ride by leading 190 of 200 laps on the way to a victory. In Sunday’ Sprint Cup eliminator race at PIR, Busch clinched his Championship berth by running strong and finishing 4th. We’ll see if Busch can apply the same sequencing strategy at Homestead.

Surprisingly, Martin Truex Jr. might just pull off the most stunning Championship upset in a long time. At the start of the Chase, Truex was given only a 12% chance of making the Championship Four, and an even slimmer 2% probability of winning the Championship. Yet, Truex has defied the odds all season as the little engine that could. Truex’s team has run steadfast and dependable all season, nipping at the heels of every Chase round on his way to Homestead.

Among NASCAR active drivers at Homestead, Truex has the second best average finish of 7.6 over the last 10 races (second only to Harvick). He finished 2nd in 2006, 3rd in 2011, and 4th in 2013.

Statistically, this season has been the finest of Truex’s career; he has delivered season bests for the most Top 5s (8) and Top 10s (22) during 2015. With those stats, Truex just might be the sleeper that shocks the NASCAR world, given he has only won three races over the entire span of his 12-year career.

Almost impossibly, the longest season in sports is coming to the white flag. Heading to Homestead, points no longer matter; the only goal for the teams in the Championship Four is to win the race!

My Prediction: Being sensible, Harvick seems to have the rest of the field covered. But if Harvick falters, my heart says there is far more fate and fortune surrounding Gordon, and that he will pull out a victory in a miraculous manner, leaving us with a storyline that hums through the off season and that can be passed along to future generations of fans.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

Consistency Got Winless Newman Into Championship Final

Ryan Newman had to take a big chance on the last lap of the race in Phoenix to make it to the Chase final. He did so and was successful.

Ryan Newman had to take a big chance on the last lap of the race in Phoenix to make it to the Chase final. He did so and was successful.

There are some observers who say that Ryan Newman should not be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, much less one of the four drivers who are eligible to win this year’s championship.

Why? Because he has not won a race. And wasn’t this new Chase format designed to reward victory? It seems unreasonable for a driver who has not won to join three who have in the Chase’s final round at Homestead.

Yes, Newman hasn’t won. But he earned a berth in the finals not by victory, but by consistency. His steady, if unspectacular, performances in the Chase – and minimal involvement in accidents and mechanical maladies – not only kept him alive in each round of the Chase, but also moved him forward.

In the first three races of the Chase, known as the Challenger Round, Newman scored just one top-10 finish. Yet, overall, he was good enough to be in 9th place in points – comfortably among the 12 drivers that advanced.

In the next three races that composed the Contender Round, Newman fared much better. He didn’t have a finish below 7th and was solidly in third place among the eight drivers who moved ahead.

Then came the next three races known as the Eliminator Round. Newman started well with a third-place run at Martinsville but stumbled a bit when he finished 15th at Texas.

When that race was over Newman remained in third place but was only 10 points ahead of Jeff Gordon – which figured prominently in the round’s final race at Phoenix.

The final four was set thusly:

Kevin Harvick won the race and that granted him an automatic berth in the final.

Contenders Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano saved themselves with some gritty, determined racing. Both made up lost laps to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, and make it to Homestead.

Newman is winless this season but he has been solidly consistent, which put him into the Chase and a chance for the title.

Newman is winless this season but he has been solidly consistent, which put him into the Chase and a chance for the title.

Gordon was primed to be the fourth entry. He was running second to Harvick on the last lap. Newman was 12th and needed to pick up a single point, somehow, if he was going to make the final.

There is an unwritten rule in NASCAR that says when drivers are on the last lap and racing for a victory, rules don’t apply – well, at least for the most part.

What that means is one driver can nudge, shove, plow or root another out of the way to win a race. Wrecking him is a different story which creates immediate controversy – but it’s happened.

Newman had to do what he could. And what he did was to slide up into the side of Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet and send him high up the track, but not into the wall.

Newman finished 11th, good enough to remove Gordon from the Chase.

Newman, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, knew exactly what he was doing against Larson. He knew there was no other way.

“In the end we fought back hard, did what we had to as clean as I possibly could,” Newman said. “I wasn’t proud of it, but I will do what I got to do to make it to this next round. 

“Kyle Larson has got a lot of things coming in this sport.  He used me up like that at Eldora in a truck a couple of years ago.  From my standpoint I call it even, but I think if he was in my position he would have probably done the same thing.”

“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can’t fault him for being aggressive there,” Larson said. “I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position.”

Newman has been criticized for his last-lap tactics but he stands by his strategy.

“I did what I had to do as clean as I could do it,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy to turn somebody, so I just drifted as much as I could to get in there. 

“My Chevy stuck on the apron and we made it.” Gordon, obviously, was not happy that he lost his last shot for at fifth career championship. But he did not blame Newman.“I don’t know if I’d say Newman wrecked him,” Gordon said. “He certainly ran him up the race track. That’s been OK everywhere we race.

“That’s the system that we have. Wait until next week when the championship is on the line. You’re going to see a lot more than that.

“That’s what NASCAR wants – to create intensity and interest and that’s what’s going to happen. You have to expect it.”

As said, some are not pleased that a winless Newman has a shot at a championship. Given that in its history no driver has ever won a title without winning a race, NASCAR is probably a bit concerned.

But what Newman has proven is that consistency is paramount in NASCAR. For years its point system was based exactly on that. It rewarded a driver who finished well week after week.

A competitor who regularly won a race and then tumbled to 40th in the next one never had a chance at the title.

Yes, the foundation of this Chase is victory.

But make no mistake – consistency is key. It was in the past and it remains so today.

 

 

 

As Champ, Stewart Knows Well What Is Expected Of Him

Stewart

Tony Stewart was honored for his third career championship during Champions Week in Las Vegas and its highlight, the Awards Banquet. Stewart is undoubtedly pleased with his achievement and should have no problem being the type of competitor he can be, personally, as NASCAR's top representative in 2012.

Tony Stewart is nobody’s fool.

Regardless of what some fans may think of him, Stewart knows full well that, as a NASCAR champion, he’s held to a high standard of conduct – both professional and personal.

He can’t lapse into the Stewart of old, the one, you may remember, who had a penchant for losing his temper, smart-mouthing fellow drivers and media alike and, on occasion, engage in physical confrontation.

I certainly recall the days when it was suggested he undergo anger management.

But I’ll be honest. That particular Stewart hasn’t existed for quite some time. At least I haven’t seen him.

Oh, I know he can get ornery and hostile from time to time, but, with rare exceptions over the years, I don’t think there has been a single competitor who hasn’t displayed such traits.

Truth be known I’m pretty sure you and I have once and a while.

My point is that today’s Stewart has already shown he can be a charming and witty guy.

For example, he fueled the humor at the NASCART Awards Banquet in Las Vegas when he convinced five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to go to the head table when he was introduced.

When done, Johnson was puzzled and the audience entertained. Good stuff.

Stewart said he had other shticks planned, including an Elvis suit, but NASCAR thought that might go a little bit far in a formal ceremony.

Stewart could have simply been formal and perfunctory, going through the motions as he was recognized as that champ.

Instead, he was genuine. And I think he’s likely to remain that way throughout his 2012 reign. He knows what he represents.

He’s been like this before. When he won the 2005 championship, his second, I was fortunate enough to be part of the television show “NASCAR Victory Lane.”

We were conducting a remote interview with a happy but tired Stewart from Homestead, where he clinched the championship.

Stewart had been asked a plethora of questions, several of which he had heard repeatedly, and when it was my turn I couldn’t think of something different to ask him.

So I inquired about what he was going to do during the off-season. Was he going to take a cruise, maybe?

I admit it – it was dumb, stupid and inane.

“Uh, I think I’m going to be too busy for anything like that,” Stewart deadpanned.

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “I had to ask.”

“No, no,” he responded. “I understand what you meant.”

And then he went through a litany of his planned activities and duties and provided the viewers with some fresh information.

When the show was over one of my colleagues commented that here was a time Stewart would have considered me a dolt – and said so.

“Reckon winning a championship kinda changes a guy, doesn’t it?” he added.

Yes, and while this third title has, again, acted as a positive catalyst for Stewart the man, I’m not sure he really needed it.

He was riding high long before he got to Las Vegas.

Before the Chase began Stewart was nowhere close to a pleased, happy-go-lucky fellow – and no wonder.

When the “playoff” began he hadn’t won a race and was a championship contender only because he managed to hold on to ninth place in the point standings.

He admitted his team didn’t deserve to be part of the Chase. The Stewart-Haas organization was “bumbling and stumbling.”

He wasn’t hostile but he wasn’t happy. He clearly did not like the direction his team had taken.

Then Stewart and his team did what champions do. They came roaring back, rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.

Stewart won four races in the Chase to close within three points of Carl Edwards when the Homestead finale came around.

In that race he overcame adversity, went three- and four-wide to make passes and won for the fifth time, – that’s half the races in the Chase – with Edwards second. They were tied in points at 2,403, but Stewart claimed the title because he had more victories.

And think of it – he earned every one of them in the Chase, something he for which he once declared he and his team were unsuitable.

To capture a title in such a manner, and help create NASCAR history, has to make any competitor feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

There’s something else; something I think may be just as satisfying to Stewart, perhaps more so, than a title alone.

He did it as the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

While Kulwicki’s accomplishment will always have its place in NASCAR lore, it came during a different era.

It came just before NASCAR’s boom, when teams flourished and multiplied. Single organizations fielded not one, but two, three, four or five cars and would have had more had not NASCAR drawn the line.

When Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing in the risk to own a team, he, too, opted for the multicar format. Ryan Newman was hired to be his teammate.

But, given the established powerhouses he was up against, a championship seemed unlikely.

It was achieved in just the third year of Stewart-Haas’ existence.

Yes, I know the team got tremendous technical support from Hendrick Motorsports. However, getting such assistance is one thing. How well it is used is quite another.

That he won a historical championship in the manner he did, and as an owner to boot, seems more than enough to make Stewart a satisfied, content, happy and laid-back man.

I think he can remain so for all of his 2012 reign. He certainly knows that to do so will serve NASCAR – and more important, Stewart himself – very well.

If you ask me, I don’t think he’ll find it difficult. I think he’s had a lot of practice over the past few years.

Tony Stewart Outguns Carl Edwards


Tony Stewart out-gunned, out-duelled, and just plain old out-drove Carl Edwards to win the Sprint Cup Championship in NASCAR. Stewart fought his way through the pack twice on Sunday at Homestead Speedway in South Florida. It’s the first NASCAR Championship to be settled by a tie-breaker.

The Scenario Tells Us This One Might Be One For The Ages

Carl Edwards Tony Stewart

Carl Edwards (top) and Tony Stewart have been just three points apart in the race for the 2011 championship for the last two weeks. It all comes down to Homestead this weekend, where the two drivers will feel all the pressure in what has become one of the closest battles for a title in NASCAR's history.

You’ve gotta like this.

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will be decided this weekend between two drivers – those left standing after nine races in the Chase- separated by so few points it is virtually impossible to predict who will win – although I’m sure many of us will try.

Carl Edwards, the Roush Fenway Racing driver who has held the points lead for the last five weeks, comes into the Ford 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway with only a three-point lead over Tony Stewart.

Stewart, who drives for the Stewart-Haas team he co-owns, is in contention for his third career championship based upon the four victories he’s earned in the Chase.

In the past there have been championship scenarios as close. And a few of them featured as many as three competitors in an agonizingly tight battle.

In 2004, Kurt Busch beat Jimmie Johnson for the title by eight points – the closest margin in NASCAR history. In 2005, Stewart won his first by 35 points over Greg Biffle and Edwards.

When Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship in 2010, he overcame a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin at Homestead to take the title by 39 points.

This time, things are a little bit different. This will be the first championship decided under NASCAR’s revised Chase format that, among other things, was intended to be simpler and easier to follow.

I can’t help but think that while the goal of simplicity was one thing, for NASCAR, it would be even more important if the new system produced a tense championship contest similar to several in the past. It has.

Ironically, Edwards was three points ahead of Stewart when the Chase began in Chicago on Sept. 19. At the time, however, he was fifth in points and Stewart was ninth. Edwards’ victory in Las Vegas in March made the difference.

At the time Stewart was winless and groused that his team wasn’t performing well enough to be in the Chase.

That changed quickly. Stewart won the first two races in the Chase and climbed to No. 1 in points, three spots and 14 points ahead of Edwards.

Then Stewart cooled down and the consistent Edwards took the points lead after his fifth-place finish at Kansas.

Stewart lit the jets again with another pair of consecutive victories at Martinsville and Texas. But he couldn’t wrest the lead away from Edwards, who finished ninth and second, respectively.

They were three points apart going into Phoenix. Afterward, as hard as it might be to believe, the margin remained the same.

For a time it appeared Stewart might cruise to victory No. 5 in the Kobalt Tools 500. He led the most laps to earn valuable bonus points.

But things changed after the last pit stop. The handling in Stewart’s car changed. It became too loose in the turns.

Edwards, meanwhile, held steady on the track, taking no chances as he finished second to winner Kasey Kahne. Stewart was a position behind and, because he had led the most laps, he matched Edwards with 43 points.

Had circumstances been different and Stewart won the race, he would now have the points lead and added momentum.

As it is the two remain three points apart for the second consecutive week.

Certainly Stewart’s competitive turnaround at the start of the Chase has been highly beneficial. He’s been able to parlay victories and bonus points into a near-deadlock for the championship. His four wins also provide him with the tiebreaker, if needed. It’s something else in his favor.

Edwards hasn’t won in the Chase but his consistency has been remarkable. His worst finish has been an 11th at Talladega. His average finish is 5.2, which is a clear example of why he’s risen to first in points.

If he wins or finishes second at Homestead he will best Johnson’s average finish of 5.0 in the 2007 Chase.

NASCAR tells us the only way Edwards is guaranteed the title is if he wins at Homestead. With the three-point margin, no other result gives Edwards the championship, regardless of where Stewart finishes.

NASCAR added that Edwards’ lead translates into about 13 points under the previous system, the closest margin ever going into the final race of the Chase. It’s also the third closest since the inception of a points-based system in 1975.

Incidentally, if Stewart wins at Homestead he’ll clinch the title, even if Edwards is second and leads the most laps. That would leave the drivers tied in points and Stewart owns the tiebreaker.

It’s likely the odds makers – who make a living absorbing facts and figures – would establish Edwards as the favorite.

He has won two of the last three races at Homestead. He drives a Ford and Ford has won seven of the 12 races held at the 1.5-mile track. Stewart competes in a Chevrolet, which has never won at Homestead.

Roush Fenway has fielded the winner in six of the last seven races at Homestead.

Yes, the odds are presently in Edwards’ favor – seemingly.

But in this championship scenario pressure is huge and emotions run high. Every step of car preparation will be intensely scrutinized – especially so at the track.

Simply put, the two drivers and their teams will be in a pressure cooker. To me, that says while numbers may account for something, they certainly don’t account for everything.

Edwards said the championship could come down to the last lap at Homestead. Given what we’ve seen over the past two weeks that is a distinct possibility.

Seems only fitting that it is the way it will be.

If so, you really gotta like that.

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