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NASCAR 2011? Now this season was a wild one!

   A pensive Carl Edwards (R), listening to championship rival Tony Stewart in the hours before their Homestead showdown (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Even in a season filled with more twists and turns and the unexpected than seen in many years, a surprisingly energetic run of stock car action and drama that didn't even end at the Homestead, Fla., finish line, it's still quite easy to pick the biggest story of the NASCAR tour.
   But it's not simply Tony Stewart's amazing playoff run to the Sprint Cup championship.

   It's much more involved than that stunning turnaround -- in which the former Indianapolis star barely survived a rather ragged year really to beat much more consistent rival Carl Edwards for his third title by winning the must-win final race, taking the crown on the sport's first-ever championship tie-breaker.
   It's also the tangles and still evolving twists in the Stewart-Ryan Newman Chevy camp: Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's long-time crew chief, just moving over to the Stewart camp after spending his Cup career with Joe Gibbs....a month after the final race of the year. Zipadelli is taking the post as competition director for the 2-1/2-team operation and as crew chief for Cup newcomer Danica Patrick (which should be interesting to watch).
   The year, Stewart's third as an owner-driver (albeit supported by Rick Hendrick's massive engineering operations), was as strange as they come. After two very good seasons with crew chief Darian Grubb (the man who filled in so admirably for Chas Knaus back when), this one looked okay in the opening weeks. Nearly winning Las Vegas, Stewart and Grubb came back east for the tour's fourth event of the year even atop the Sprint Cup standings. Still the rest of the spring was somewhat sluggish for the team, though it should be noted that Stewart is notorious as a slow starter but hot runner in the heat of summer.


Tony Stewart leading Carl Edwards at Phoenix...with Kasey Kahne lurking in a spoiler's role (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The summer, though, opened with an odd performance by Stewart at Sonoma, Calif., on the road course where Stewart typically runs extremely well. This time, however, Stewart, while in contention to win, got too carried away in a duel with Brian Vickers (not a challenger for the win), and after deliberately dumping Vickers, Vickers in the final miles, returned the favor....and Stewart wound up 39th.
   That began a summer of malaise -- where that 2-1 finish at Loudon with Newman seemed almost an aberration -- culminating in the strange August weekend in Bristol, Tenn., where  Newman won the pole...while Stewart himself qualified dead last.
   With that, reports heated up about Grubb being on his way out eventually, and indications that Zipadelli would be moving over to take over the Stewart operation.
   Just as all that was being digested, Stewart and Grubb the next time out, at Atlanta, abruptly turned everything around. Just two weeks after Stewart had grumbled at Michigan that he and his team didn't deserve to be in the playoffs because they weren't championship contenders, Stewart was suddenly hot again.
   Stewart's surge was so unexpected and dramatic in the first two weeks of the chase -- Stewart winning at Chicago and Loudon -- that most of his challengers seemed dumbfounded and flatfooted.
   Stewart's bad day at Dover (25th) was only an anomaly; he bounced back with wins at Martinsville -- a must-win for him -- and at Texas, where he stunned Edwards, who had figured that track as his own ace in the hole.
   Stewart threw down the gauntlet in victory lane at Martinsville, vowing Edwards wouldn't sleep a wink the final three weeks of the season.
   And after beating Edwards head-to-head at Texas, during a weekend where Stewart appeared in such control of the whole situation that he even took time out for a major press conference with new teammate Danica Patrick, the momentum had clearly moved strongly to Stewart's side....though Edwards still had the numbers on his side.


Tony Stewart, victorious in Texas...stunning Carl Edwards (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Edwards did outrun Stewart at Phoenix, in the season's next to last race....but Edwards lost a valuable -- invaluable -- three points to Stewart when soon-to-be Hendrick man Kasey Kahne upset the two with the win.
   So Edwards went to Homestead three points up on Stewart, instead of six. And that set up the end game -- Stewart had to win the race to win the championship. And Edwards had to finish ahead of Stewart to win the championship.
   The best showdown in NASCAR history?
   Probably so.
   Stewart kept up the verbal pressure on Edwards pre-race. But once the final 400 miles got underway, Stewart was quickly in a deep hole, when pieces from Kurt Busch's blown transmission went through his grill and forced him to pit for repairs. Stewart rallied back, only to get bushwhacked again with a hung lug nut on a routine pit stop. And he had to rally again from back to front.
    Edwards meanwhile was dominating the day (he led almost half the rain-marred race).
    And then, inexplicably, Grubb made the late-race call for Stewart to stretch gas, a stunning gamble that seemed unnecessary, since Stewart and Edwards were evenly matched and no one else had a car that could challenge.
    It all turned chaotic in the final miles, Stewart in the lead after Edwards made his last scheduled stop, and Edwards chasing.
    Edwards couldn't catch him, and Stewart completed one of the most incredible playoff runs ever.
    But that wasn't the end of the story.
    In post-race celebrations Grubb revealed that Stewart had told him weeks earlier that he wouldn't be back for 2012.
    Firing the man who led him to five wins in the year's last 10 races, and the NASCAR championship?
    Another stunner for Stewart in his season of surprises.
    Remember back in June Stewart had dropped long-time competition director Bobby Hutchens too.
    And new crew chief Steve Addington will certainly have his work cut out when the tour returns to action with January Daytona 500 testing.
    So will new competition boss Zipadelli.
    But whatever happens next for Stewart and Company, it almost certainly won't be able to match what Stewart and Grubb did in these playoffs.

   Putting Stewart's charge into some perspective:

   NASCAR keeps track of some interesting statistics, via its track-embedded scoring system: average running position, closers, fastest laps, fastest on restarts, fastest green flag speed, laps in the top-15, percentage of laps run on the lead lap, and 'quality passes,' coming up with what it calls 'driver rating.'
   That chart tells the story of the season as a whole.

   1 -- Kyle Busch         (104.1)
   2 -- Carl Edwards       (101.0)
   3 -- Jimmie Johnson   (99.1)
   4 -- Matt Kenseth       (98.9)
   5 -- Jeff Gordon          (96.5)
   6 -- Tony Stewart        (96.0)
   7 -- Kurt Busch          (93.7)
   8 -- Kevin Harvick       (92.2)
   9 -- Kasey Kahne       (89.7)
   10 -- Ryan Newman    (88.3)
   11 -- Denny Hamlin     (88.1)
   12 -- Clint Bowyer       (87.5)

   Another way to look at the sport's balance of power is the classic laps led, over the 10,650 laps:
   1. Kyle Busch             1,455
   2. Jimmie Johnson       1,115
   3. Jeff Gordon                922
   4. Tony Stewart             913  (only 340 in the regular season, but 573 in the last 10 races)
   5. Carl Edwards             903
   6. Matt Kenseth             875
   7. Kurt Busch                770
   8. Denny Hamlin            450
   9. Kevin Harvick             403
   10. Ryan Newman         403
   11. Greg Biffle               351
   12.  Clint Bowyer          345

   Yet another way is Best Finishing Average over all 36 tour events:

   1. Carl Edwards             9.306
   2. Kevin Harvick           11.500
   3. Jimmie Johnson       11.917
   4. Tony Stewart           12.028
   5. Matt Kenseth          12.167
   6. Kyle Busch             13.00      
   7. Jeff Gordon              13.028
   8. Ryan Newman         14.028
   9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.    14.500
  10. Kurt Busch             14.611
   11. Brad Keselowski    14.833
   12. Denny Hamlin        16.00

   Indeed, a major part of the Tony Stewart story must be seen by looking over at the Ford camp, where the big story was Carl Edwards, the sport's most dominant driver throughout the 10 months, though only winning once.
   Edwards over the past year or so has become one of the most polished figures on the stock car tour, and after losing the heartbreaker at Homestead to Stewart Edwards was magnanimous and graceful, in one of the most striking post-championship interviews ever.
   Edwards, whose leap off the Las Vegas Stratosphere in March was classic Edwards showmanship, didn't really make any major mistakes in his championship run, or in the Homestead 400. Yet he lost. All he had to do in the final race was finish ahead of Stewart, and Stewart was down bad early on, and again midway, but still rallied.
   That Edwards managed to overcome the summer-long debate over his future -- would he leave the Jack Roush Ford camp and jump to the Joe Gibbs Toyota camp to take the Home Depot-sponsored ride? -- was somewhat remarkable. All that controversy would have derailed a less focused driver and team. But Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne kept things together.
   Edwards and Osborne were atop the Cup standings for 21 of the 36 weeks, including heading into the final race. And Ford overall appeared to have an edge through most if not all of the season, with its new engine the FR9 showing a clear advantage right from the start at Daytona.  Nevertheless, in another season where five-time champion Chevy star Jimmie Johnson was 'vulnerable,' Ford once again came up short. Chevy teams have now won seven straight Cup championships; Ford's last title was in 2004.
   So a big question for the off-season is how did Ford lose?
   Yes, Stewart made an amazing charge, as the rest of the competition, except for Edwards, faded badly.
   If Ford had the technological edge, why did Chevy teams win more than twice as many races? In fact Chevy teams won 18 of the tour's 36 events.
   And Chevy teams led more laps by far than Ford, Toyota and Dodge. Of the year's 10,650 laps, Chevy teams led nearly half (4,718). That's more than twice as many laps as Ford teams (2,347).  Chevy teams led more laps on the short tracks, led more laps on the mid-sized speedways, and led more laps at Daytona and Talladega; only on the two road courses, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, did another manufacturer dominate.
   Those stats are nothing new. Chevy teams have dominated NASCAR's Sprint Cup tour for years, and this was the third straight season Chevy teams won half the races.
   The last year a rival won more races than Chevrolet was 2002, when Ford won 14 times to Chevrolet's 10.
   Since that season Chevy teams have racked up 172 tour wins, Ford 71, Dodge 41, and Toyota 39.
   And that's something for Ford executives to ponder.


     The 12 when the playoffs began. But only two made it to the finale (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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