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Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart: one last race to decide it all

All the laps, 10,383 since back in February at Daytona; all the miles, 13,836. All the tracks, 22 going into last Sunday, Homestead-Miami was number 23, and all the drivers, 81, started at least one Cup race in 2011. All these brought us to last Sunday’s championship showdown that was whittled down to two drivers and three points going into the 36th and final race of 2011, the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Just twice in the past three-plus decades has the championship battle gotten closer than this.  Series point leader Carl Edwards held a scant three-point advantage over second-place Tony Stewart.  Three points under the current points system translates to roughly thirteen points under the previous system, making this third

the closest margin between first and second going into the final race since the inception of the position-based points system in 1975.

In 1979, Darrell Waltrip held a two-point lead over Richard Petty. And in 1990, Dale Earnhardt led by six points over Mark Martin heading into the season’s final race. Petty went on to overcome Waltrip’s lead in the season final of 1979, winning the championship by eleven points. In 1990, Earnhardt widened his lead in the season final, to beat Martin by twenty-six points.

Here is a closer look at the two contenders:
Carl Edwards
A picture of consistency, Edwards owns the series-best numbers in top fives with 18, and top tens with 25.  But the reason he owns the point lead was his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season. Both Edwards and Stewart have scored the exact number of points over the first nine races of the Chase at 356 each. Edwards held his three-point edge, thanks to the three bonus points he earned for his Las Vegas win.  If Edwards held on to win the championship, he would join Bobby Labonte as the only two drivers to win both a Nationwide and Sprint Cup series championship.

There have been only 3 season final comebacks since 1975. In 1979, Petty overcame Darrell Waltrip’s two-point lead.  In 1992, Alan Kulwicki erased Davey Allison’s 30-point lead in the season’s final, and last season Jimmie Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points, but came back to win his 5th consecutive championship.

Edwards’ success rate at Homestead is practically unmatched.  He has two wins, four top fives and six top 10’s in seven homestead starts.  Roush Racing has two previous championships, Matt Kenseth in 2003, and Kurt Busch in 2004.

Tony Stewart
A third championship would put Stewart in a very exclusive group.  Stewart would join David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Lee Petty, and Darrell Waltrip  as the sport’s only three-time Champions.  Pearson and Petty are already in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. Waltrip and Yarborough will be inducted in January.

Stewart is the only driver to win a Cup championship under the Chase format, in 2005, and the pre-chase format in 2002.  Stewart would become the first owner/driver to win the championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

  Sunday, it played out just perfectly. It was Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards battling for the win right down to the end of the race.  Tony banked the championship check of $5.6 million dollars. With two rain delays, the race that took the green flag at 3:30 p.m. did not end until 8:15 p.m.

Stewart and Edwards dueled it out, running first and second for the final 40 laps. No caution flags, just solid up-on-the-wheel driving.  For the first time in NASCAR history, two drivers finished tied in the points.  Stewart won the championship by the tie breaker, the most wins. It was also the first time since they went to the Chase format that one driver has won five of the 10 Chase races. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
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