Race Weekend Central

The Greatest Chase of All Time? You Betcha

Tony Stewart’s championship raised the bar for the Chase after what was one of the most competitive title battles in NASCAR history.

Sunday’s Ford 400 was an epic end to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Was it also among the greatest sports moments of recent history?

You can make the case that it was, and it ranked right up there with any Super Bowl, World Series or NCAA basketball tournament.

In fact, it was more like the biggest sports events in all of history, like Ali-Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila or the 1984 Olympic Games.

You had two drivers going head-to-head, within the confines of a race involving 41 other cars, separated by three points. It was winner-take-all, and they didn’t disappoint.

Ups and downs marked this Chase. Tony Stewart won the first two Chase races, at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, after not winning at all in the 26 previous races. He hit a bump in the road at Dover, then rebounded with wins at Martinsville and Texas.

Though Carl Edwards emerged as the point leader, Stewart kept hanging around, lurking and being a constant pain in Edwards’ rear bumper.

Following the victory at Texas, Edwards held serve at Phoenix and went to Homestead-Miami Speedway with a three-point lead.

That doesn’t sound like much, does it? Three little points should be a mere blip on the radar. Try it, when the guy you’re racing keeps finishing right ahead or right behind you, and there’s just one point per position.

That three-point lead translated to 13 points under the old system, which is three spots on the track. All Stewart had to do was score four more points than Edwards to win it outright, or erase the three points of deficit and win it on the tiebreaker.
That’s exactly what Stewart did.

The early round went to Edwards on points. He won the pole and led a ton of laps early, while Stewart was dealing with a stove-in air screen in the grille after catching pieces/parts of Kurt Busch’s exploding transmission.

That put him back to 40th. Game over, right?

Wrong.

Darian Grubb and Jeff Meendering led the crew in repairing the grille, and Stewart was as good as he was before it happened, perhaps even better. Edwards, meanwhile, was rocking and rolling in the top four, seemingly in control.

This back-and-forth happened a couple of times, as Smoke kept tinkering and making adjustments and passing cars. Edwards was sitting pretty, until after the red flag for rain. Stewart gained track position and got back up to the front.

This Chase was so close, it seemed as if the title would come down to a fuel gamble, or a late caution, or an engine problem at an inconvenient time.

It did, in a way. Stewart had the lead and stayed out, gambling he could make it to the fuel window at 55 laps. He pitted with the lead, just moments before a brief rain shower coated the speedway. Edwards made his stop under yellow and came out sixth, while Stewart was fourth.

By the time the restart took place, Stewart was third, Edwards fifth.

The green waved with 42 laps to go, and they both went to the front. The upshot was, to win the title, Edwards had to pass Stewart. Stewart, to win the title, had to keep Edwards behind him.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Edwards hung it out, chasing the leader. Stewart hung it out, setting a blazing pace. The laps clicked away, and they finished just that way.

It was like the 12th round in the first Ali-Frazier fight, Game 7 of the World Series, the last drive of the Super Bowl and the last shot in the NCAA tournament.

It was the two best drivers in the two best cars, slugging it out over the final 42 laps of the season.

As dramatic as Johnson’s five titles in a row were, they were never this dramatic. Never were the two main combatants in the Chase so close, and never did they have to race each other for it like they did on Sunday night.

Last year, when Johnson overcame a 15-point deficit to beat Denny Hamlin, it was over early. Johnson had to finish the race, that was all. On Sunday, not only did Stewart and Edwards have to finish, they had to win to earn the title.

That’s epic. That’s historic. That’s… just wild.

In a season when NASCAR needed a competitive, down-to-the-wire championship battle, it got one. It got a battle that for once did not include Jimmie Johnson. It got a battle that will be talked about for years as the best Chase battle ever, and that’s a good thing for the sport.

Stewart showed the determination he is famous for, and also a softer side that seemed to appreciate the battle and the guy he was fighting against. Winning five races in 10, the most important 10 of the season, is strong, and Stewart showed that recent struggles were an anomaly.

He’s one of nine drivers to have won three or more Sprint Cup titles, joining names like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. That’s strong too.

He’s the only driver to win five Chase races in the same season, too.

Edwards did everything he had to do to win the title… except beat Stewart at Homestead. It was an interesting reversal of roles, too. Stewart had won both his previous titles at Homestead with a cushion entering the final race, while Edwards had lost two entering Homestead behind in the points.

When the last history of the Chase is written, this one will be the one they hold up as an example of the best of them. You had young vs. old, owner-driver vs. team guy, clean-cut vs. scruffy. You had Ford vs. Chevrolet, too, and if you think that’s no longer important, you’re wrong.

All in all, the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was surprising, poignant, pugnacious, dramatic and thrilling. It was a triumph of desire, of that need to win because it’s in your blood. It was a shot in the arm to NASCAR, and it was a promise to its fans that there will be more to come like this.

The Chase of 2011 will go down in history not only as the best NASCAR championship race in history, bar none, it takes its rightful place among the greatest events in sports history, too.

Can’t wait until next year…

“Contact Ron Lemasters”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/34178/

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