NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Ford 400 at Homestead

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Most readers know that this honor generally goes to a driver who didn’t get the winner’s spotlight, but this week it seems wrong to shine that light on anyone but Tony Stewart. Stewart played the race like a violin, and he clearly had fun doing it, even giving Carl Edwards a playful tap on the bumper at one point. Going in, only a win for Stewart would guarantee him the title, so Stewart simply went out and won. He took the race and the championship title from Edwards, overcoming a damaged racecar (and subsequent 40th-place restart) early in the race and a dry fuel cell on pit road later on en route to the victory. In fact, Stewart passed 118 racecars over the course of the evening. Edwards put on one of the finest championship race runs we’ve seen in recent years. Stewart put on the best.

What… was THAT?

Three series came to Homestead with the championship on the line. While the Nationwide title was virtually decided, the Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series titles were still up for grabs. The CWTS title looked as if it, like the Cup championship, would be decided on the last lap of the race. But with 15 laps to go on Friday night, the race was cancelled… after just a seven-minute rain delay. The rain was over by the time Johnny Sauter was given the victory and Austin Dillon the championship trophy. The points margin at the end? Six. With Dillon having possible issues and Sauter looking like he was on his way to gaining every available bonus point, the title was far from decided when the rain came.

Yet NASCAR seemed to make no attempt to see the race to its conclusion. Yes, it would have been close to midnight at the earliest, but 15 laps wouldn’t have taken long to run. They could also have concluded the race Saturday morning. The championship race should have special consideration, period. No title should be awarded until the final race reaches its scheduled distance, period. And while I don’t agree with the conspiracy theorists, I sure see where they’re coming from. Championships should be decided in one place and one place only: on the racetrack.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

In any other year, if the Chase points leader started on the pole, led the most laps, and finished second, it would have meant a championship. Unfortunately for Edwards, 2011 was the exception to that. Going into the race, there was no “clinch scenario” for Edwards as there had been for the CWTS and Nationwide champions, no position he could look at as the cutoff where he could cruise to the win. The only way that Edwards could assure himself of the title no matter what Stewart did was to win the race. And had any other driver but Stewart won, Edwards would have been the champion anyway. In fact, had Edwards finished just one position higher in any of the nine Chase races, he would have hoisted the Cup. Edwards put together his best Chase run on Sunday, but by not taking risks early in the Chase, he couldn’t gain enough points even with the lap-leader bonuses. Edwards ran a great race from start to finish, a race worthy of a champion. It simply wasn’t enough.

When… will I be loved?

It there’s a villain here, it was Mother Nature. The only damper on an otherwise spectacular afternoon of racing was a pair of rain delays. And it was a good thing those ended when they did; the skies opened up before the victory ceremonies even really got started. Stewart was soaked before the champagne even flew, nearly five hours after the green flag. The second caution for rain actually erased concerns of a fuel-mileage race (and possibly a fuel mileage champion as well), so it’s hard to call that one a bad thing-especially since it ended just in time to finish the race before the heavens opened up.

Why… are the last two championships so special?

The short answer is because for two straight years, you saw something that you will probably never see again. Last year, Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title. Chase or no, that is something no other driver has ever done, and likely no driver ever will. This year, Stewart went out and took the championship in the only way he could: by winning. The win put him in the first points tie to end a Cup season in the history of the sport by virtue of wins, and makes him the first driver since the modern points systems began in 1975 to win the final race in order to come from behind and win the title. Stewart had five wins to Edwards’s one, and that proved to be the difference. Another thing occurred as well on Sunday that can never again be done: Stewart is the only driver to hold Winston Cup, Nextel Cup and Sprint Cup championships, a fitting end note to a truly historic 12 months. NASCAR fans, when it comes down to it, the last 365 days have been pretty amazing.

How… does the 2012 Sprint Cup picture look from here?

It will be interesting to see 2012 play out. It’s too early to look for answers, but consider all the questions that will need to be answered next year as we look towards Daytona: Will Edwards come out fighting after coming so close to the championship he could taste the trophy kiss, or will he fold like Denny Hamlin did in 2011? It looks likely that Darian Grubb will not return to his championship team; where will he end up? And who will call the shots for Stewart? Can Johnson bounce back from the worst season of his career and contend for a sixth career title? Will there even be full fields as at least four full-time teams won’t be back?

It will be another 365 days until we know these answers. Until then, I wish you and yours a magical holiday season; see you on the other side, when the engines revving at Daytona wake us from our winter slumber!

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