NASCAR crowned a champion on Sunday evening (Nov. 20). They also handed a trophy to a winner. And for the first time since the Chase came to Homestead, the recipient was one and the same: Tony Stewart and his No. 14 team.
There has been much said of the points system this year as NASCAR tweaked it last winter to “more consistently” reward wins. And if we did the math, that wasn’t entirely true. The man who took home the most trophies wasn’t the one entering Sunday’s battle at the top of the points. Instead, we were handed a potential champ in Carl Consistent Edwards, who seemed to race for top fives throughout the Chase instead of wins.
However, if you noticed, Carl Edwards isn’t the one packing the entire team – families and all – in a plane and heading to the oasis in the desert for one massive party. Stewart is – based on a championship tiebreaker where he had more wins (four more, including the nail-biting performance at Homestead) than Mr. Edwards. And that fact right there should silence all the doubters of the points system once and for all.
Stewart, once he got good and ticked off back in August after Michigan, decided to throw down the gauntlet before his team. Yes, they seemed to take home top 10s more weeks than not, but he knew that wasn’t how you win championships or races. You have to go all out, take no prisoners and keep the eye of the prize.
Use however many clichés you must, but he knew his No. 14 would go nowhere meaningful if they accepted mediocrity. The champion in Tony stood up and inspired those around him to meet the higher bar. And they did. Five wins in the final 10 races – that was indeed a race to the finish. Stewart accepted nothing less than perfection. He got it.
Back in the No. 99 camp, we had a happy-go-lucky atmosphere. Edwards addressed the media week after week confident in his team’s continued performance. Always leading laps, banging doors with the other top-five contenders, this was how you got to the top. The key seemed to be to maintain an even keel and they’d be taking home the millions from Florida.
And folks, that is the difference between chasing a championship and thinking you are good enough. That is the difference between counting points and taking home trophies.
Yes, with the current points system it is mathematically possible to do what Matt Kenseth did back in 2003, win the Sprint Cup and only visit victory lane once in a season. You could even do it without winning at all. But it’s not likely to happen.
Every time there’s a driver, crew chief, owner, tire carrier or gas man that thinks they’ve got this sport down and nobody could possibly do it better, somebody will rise to the challenge and beat them at their own game. This includes points racing.
Who can forget Dale Earnhardt Sr., long considered the only game in town in his black No. 3, toasting a young pup named Jeff Gordon at the awards banquet with milk? The man knew Gordon was gunning for everything he had accomplished. Or Gordon as a new co-owner hiring Jimmie Johnson to drive his No. 48, because he saw something in the future five-time that frightened the champion in himself? The competitors are well aware that status quo is not a term to be used in auto racing.
It’s the hunger to be bigger and better than those that came before you that drives a champion. And it is that drive that propelled Stewart past Edwards, first for the lead, for the victory and once and for all, for his third championship as a driver and his first as an owner.
There we were, 30 laps remained in the race. Stewart kept to the high side and his foot in the pedal, never lifting, never blinking. Edwards used everything he had to stay off the wall and keep Stewart’s tail in view. The ticker at the top of the screen read 2,403 points for each of the warriors.
We all waited for Stewart to wiggle. For his extra two laps of gas to turn into mist. For Edwards’s engine to expire as three other Roush motors did during the evening. Gut-wrenching, heart-stopping excitement, the kind only to be found in an instant classic NASCAR event. They roared across the finish line and drove the cool-down lap side by side, each congratulating one another on a battle well fought.
They remained tied in the points. Not a hair between the two. You might say, according to the numbers, that they had run very similar seasons to arrive at their destination so close to one another. And yet, so very far apart.
Stewart’s posse piled onto the staging. Mobs of team members from across the series poured onto the frontstretch, seeking to shake the hand of the man who told his team if they made it to the Chase, they probably didn’t deserve to be there. And why all the excitement?
Because he won.
It will be much debated in years to come which of those five Chase races – Chicago, Loudon, Martinsville, Texas or Homestead – was the one that earned Stewart his third cup. But the point is, it wasn’t his stellar performance through the entire year that won that cup.
It was Stewart’s tenacity, sometimes brutal honesty, inspiring leadership and most of all, the wins.
Victories broke the tie between Edwards and Stewart. Victories are what separated the runner-up from the champ. Victories beat consistency. And will continue to do so as long as one human believes he can go faster than another, whether there are points to be had or not.
Have faith, my friends. This was a great season in so many ways. Youth and inexperience found their voice in Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski. Under-funded teams raced their way to victory lane (I still have a hard time believing Regan Smith‘s No. 78 did it!) And those who have battled long and hard rediscovered the thrill of the Chase and won me over once again as a die-hard NASCAR fan (Thanks Tony!)
Enjoy your holidays and the warm winter nights with your family. I look forward to joining you again when the February sun shines over Daytona.
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