Homestead, FL – Tony Stewart has won a lot of championships during his illustrious racing career, but winning his third Sprint Cup Series title in 2011 was unlike any other one that he has experienced.
It's celebration time for Stewart and his No.14 team...and a well deserved one for them after battling back from adversity earlier in the season. But what's forthcoming for the team is ambiguous, particularly with crew chief Darian Grubb.
What a race for Stewart on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and what a way to conclude his championship season.
Starting 15th and trailing leader Carl Edwards by just three points when the green flag waved for the 400-mile season-finale at Homestead, Stewart overcame numerous obstacles, especially in the early going when he ran over debris that damaged his front grille. He had to make two lengthy pit stops under caution for repairs and fell back to 40th.
But Stewart made an amazing comeback, passing a total of 118 cars throughout the race. He did a lot of his passing by going three and sometimes four wide after many restarts. Stewart last pitted with 56 laps remaining in a fuel and tire strategy. He held the third position during the eighth and final caution, but after the last restart with 37 laps to go, he quickly moved around Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to take the lead for good.
"Man, I feel like I passed half the State of Florida; 118 cars is a lot of cars to pass in one race," Stewart said. "I don't care what series you're in or where you're at. To do it under the circumstances and the pressure that we had [Sunday], I'm very proud of that. I've been racing 31 years, and I can't even remember some of the races I've won. But I would have to say that under the circumstances, I've got to believe that this is definitely one of the greatest races of my life."
Stewart's win coupled with a second-place finish for Edwards at Homestead gave each driver a season-ending 2,403 points. In a tiebreaker, Stewart captured the title by virtue of his five wins this season -- all of them coming in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup -- compared to only one victory for Edwards, which came in March at Las Vegas.
When the Chase began on September 18 at Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart doubted whether or not he should have been in the playoffs after his team struggled during the summer months. Thanks to a third-place finish at Atlanta and then a seventh-place run in the season-ending race at Richmond, Stewart squeaked his way into the Chase, earning the tenth seed.
Stewart set a season-record of five Chase wins. His other victories came at Chicago, New Hampshire, Martinsville and Texas. Stewart had lost momentum in the Chase by finishing 25th at Dover and then 15th at Kansas, but he recovered nicely from there.
"When I said at Chicago that we didn't belong in this Chase and taking a space that somebody else that was doing a better job could have done, there were two things that could have happened with our group of guys," Stewart said. "They could have hung their heads and said that our guy doesn't believe in us, or they could do it, which is exactly what they did, and that's never give up, and they dug their heels in. They fought like the Bad News Bears.
"We were the team that nobody really thought had a shot at the beginning, and the longer this went, we battled adversity at Dover and Texas. and we just kept fighting."
Stewart's two other Sprint Cup championships came in 2002 and '05. He became the ninth different driver in 63-year history of NASCAR's premier series to win three or more titles. Stewart also became the first driver and owner to win the series championship since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992.
Before he competed in NASCAR full-time, Stewart won the 1997 IndyCar championship. He also has several USAC titles to his credit.
When rain fell on the 1.5-mile South Florida track during his post-race championship celebration, Stewart received a surprise phone call from racing legend A.J. Foyt. Stewart's Chevrolet has the number 14 in honor of his childhood hero Foyt.
"To hear him say that was the best race he's ever seen me run, brings a tear to your eye," Stewart said. "Not many people can have their lifelong hero say that and hear you say that."
While Stewart will be honored as the Sprint Cup champion on December 2 in Las Vegas, Grubb's future with Stewart-Haas Racing is in doubt. Grubb was informed midway through the Chase that he would not be back with the team next season.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen," said Grubb, who became a first-time championship-winning crew chief in the series. "But I was told early in the Chase before Charlotte that next year I was not going to be here. We just kept fighting and doing everything we had to do every week. It did not change anything, what the outcome was going to be. We fought as if we were going to fight to win this championship and we did it, and now we'll just see in this coming week how things change."
Grubb worked for Hendrick Motorsports from 2001-08 prior to his arrival at Stewart's team. He has guided Stewart to 11 wins in the first three years of SHR's existence. Grubb is now exploring his options.
"I had a lot of conversations with a lot of people, telling them please give me the courtesy of waiting until [Sunday night] to see what we could accomplish," he said. "Now that we have done that, I guess we'll start talking, but we'll do a little celebrating first."
In June, Stewart made a key personnel change in his racing organization with competition director Bobby Hutchens being released from the team. Matt Borland took over the role in the interim.
So what's in store for the team in the near future?
"There's a lot of things in the off-season and decisions that have to be made," Stewart said. "Obviously, we wanted to get through this championship battle first, and we'll sit down as a group this week and figure out the direction of our program."
What ends up happening at Stewart's team will be interesting to follow during the off-season.
For the meantime, they're just enjoying the party.