Tony Stewart was a mile and a half from the checkered flag Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he keyed his mic the last time during the Ford 400.
"I got this," he said.
He was right — just as he'd been predicting all week.
RESULTS: Ford 400
Stewart certified a month's worth of swagger, outdueling Carl Edwards for a victory to win the closest title race in NASCAR history.
The win — Stewart's fifth in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup — left him tied with Edwards, who finished second Sunday, atop the standings with 2,403 points.
Stewart, 40, won his third NASCAR championship by virtue of having the most wins.
"We said all week, if we just go and win the race, we wouldn't have to worry about what he did," the Columbus, Ind., native said. "If this isn't one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don't know what is."
Beyond giving NASCAR a thrilling, Game 7-style finale that chairman Brian France had envisioned when he created the Chase seven years ago, the title was significant for several reasons for Stewart, who became:
•The first champion to win the season finale in 13 years (and the seventh ever).
•The first driver-owner to win a title in NASCAR's premier series since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
•The bookend to Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented five consecutive championships (Stewart was the last before Johnson to win a title in 2005).
•The first champion in the Chase era to win five races in the title run.
Stewart (whose first title was in 2002) also joins Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Lee Petty and David Pearson as a three-time champion. All are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
He did so with perhaps a clutch performance rarely seen in NASCAR's 63-year history. Stewart roared back twice (passing 118 cars over the course of 400 miles) after falling outside the top 30 twice in the first 40 laps.
"I feel like I passed half the state of Florida," Stewart said. "I would definitely say this is one of the greatest races in my life.
"I would have lost every bet in the world that we were going to win a race or win five races."
A.J. Foyt, whom Stewart considers a hero, called him after the race and said in a statement: "Tony drove the best race of his life."
Responded Stewart: "To hear him say that, it brings a tear to your eye."
His crew chief, Darian Grubb, made a daring pit call that stretched the gas tank in Stewart's No. 14 Chevolet to the limit but left him in the catbird seat for the race's final sequence.
"Darian Grubb, you are the … man," Stewart radioed his crew. "You did this, bud."
Said Grubb, who revealed after the race that he was told by Stewart-Haas Racing last month he wouldn't return as Stewart's crew chief next season: "We just didn't give up. We kept fighting and showed we were true champions."
When asked in the postrace news conference about Grubb's status, Stewart said his main concern with Grubb was "getting him drunk tonight."
Edwards, who led a race-high 119 laps after starting from the pole, had no answer for what Stewart did on the track.
"This night is about Tony Stewart," said Edwards, who had a Chase-record average finish of 4.9. "Those guys rose to the occasion and beat us fair and square. Tony and Darian managed to do a good job with their strategy. That was all I had."
The pivotal moment of the race came when Stewart took the lead during the green-flag cycle on lap 201. His Impala was out of gas as he came to pit road on lap 212, but the strategy meant he could finish the race without stopping again.
When a caution fell for rain three laps later, Edwards was forced to pit again. On the final restart with 37 laps remaining, Stewart was third and Edwards fifth. Stewart passed Brad Keselowski a lap later and wasn't challenged as the race finished under green.
He still had to overcome plenty of adversity, starting shortly after the green flag. When the caution flag flew for the first time on lap 14 because of rain, Stewart's team discovered a large hole in the left front grille of his car.
"They're going to feel like (crap) after we kick their (butt) after this," he radioed his crew.
After two stops to repair the damage, Stewart restarted in 40th and climbed 17 spots in 14 laps when another long pit stop for fixes dropped him to 32nd.
"All right, they're really going to feel worse after we've gone to the back twice and kicked their (butt)," he said.
It was the latest jabs delivered by Stewart in a week filled with trash talking. During a title contenders news conference Thursday in Miami Beach, Edwards seemed slightly unnerved by the braggadocio of Stewart, who confidently predicted he would win the title ("it's not cocky if you back it up") and said of Edwards, "(He) is doing a pretty good acting job today. I think he's a lot more nervous than he lets on."
Edwards mostly didn't engage Stewart, electing to let his performance speak for itself. That seemed to work Saturday when he won the pole position and paced the final practice session.
That still didn't stop the sniping from Stewart, who brashly insisted the news media not start etching Edwards' name on the trophy yet after Stewart qualified 15th.
"It's like bringing a knife to a gunfight," Stewart said of the mind games he played with his rival. "He is a fun guy to pick at."
In the end, Stewart backed up his talk.
"I absolutely mentally tried to beat that kid up this week. I felt I had to throw everything out in my arsenal to get this opportunity. He's too nice to fight back. It was like picking on a kid; you kind of felt bad. … He'll win a championship and be in our position. I appreciated that battle we had."
During a rain delay that red-flagged the race for 1 hour, 14 minutes on lap 109 of 267, the cockiness hadn't faded as he told a reporter, "We are fixing to keep delivering this whooping; we got more in mind for (Edwards) the rest of the day."
Despite all of the sparring, there were no hard feelings when the battle was over. Among the first to congratulate Stewart was Edwards, who offered a hearty handshake.
"He's a great guy, and we've been giving him a rough time this week. … it shows how classy a guy he is," Stewart said.
Said Edwards, who finished second in points for the second time in his career: "If I can't win this thing, I told my wife I'm going to be the best loser NASCAR's ever had. We'll be just as hard to beat next year and the year after that. If we're in this position again, those guys better watch out."
At various points during the season, it would have seemed unlikely for either Edwards or Stewart to have won the championship.
Edwards led the standings after 21 of the first 35 races, but he spent the first six months of the season mulling his future with Roush Fenway Racing, and his uncertain status became a distraction (Jeff Gordon said Edwards, who was being courted by Joe Gibbs Racing, would have no chance at winning a championship as a lame-duck driver). Edwards elected to re-sign a multiyear deal with the team in August.
Though he had only one victory (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March), Edwards led the circuit in top-10s (26). He actually outperformed Stewart (a 6.3 average finish) for most of the Chase with nine top-10s and an 11th.
"We raised our level of performance and rose to the occasion," Edwards said. "I truly don't think we could have done much better in this Chase."
That didn't seem much solace to his crew chief, Bob Osborne, who radioed his driver, "I'm really, really, really sorry" on the cool-down lap.
Edwards responded, "Bob, you are the best crew chief out here. I'm proud of you guys. Keep your heads up."
He and Osborne might be able to find solace in the turnaround this season by the team that beat them for the title.
After finishing ninth at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 21, Stewart said his team didn't deserve to run for a championship and would be wasting a spot by making the Chase. Asked for his pre-Chase title favorites at a news conference in Chicago, he listed seven names but didn't include himself.
But he opened the 10-race title run with a victory at Chicagoland Speedway four days later and then reeled off wins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
Yet he still trailed Edwards by three points entering Homestead, where he became the first driver to come from behind and win the championship with a victory in NASCAR's modern era (which dates to 1975).
"It's been a tough summer and a tough fall for us," Stewart said. "You've got to believe in something."
As a downpour begain shortly after his championship celebration began Sunday night, he said his faith was in the "man upstairs (for holding) the rain off long enough for us to get the job done."
"I don't care how long it rains," Stewart said. "I'm going to be up all night."
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