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Tony Stewart wins NASCAR Sprint Cup championship by winning finale

HOMESTEAD — Tony Stewart won the biggest game of winner-take-all in NASCAR history.

Rebounding from some setbacks, Stewart took the checkered flag in Sunday's rain-interrupted Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the Sprint Cup championship in a tiebreaker over race runnerup Carl Edwards.

With four new tires to Edwards' two — thanks to a gamble that paid off when rain hit the 1½-mile speedway for the second time on Lap 213 of 267 — Stewart gradually pulled away after a restart on Lap 231 and claimed his third Cup title, with this and his 2005 crown bookending the five straight championships Jimmie Johnson won from 2006-10. Stewart also won in '02.

The victory was Stewart's fifth of the season, all coming in the 10-race Chase for the Championship. The bonus points for winning Sunday allowed Stewart to make up his three-point deficit. The two tied at 2,403 points, but the driver nicknamed "Smoke" claimed the title with five victories this season to Edwards' one.

Martin Truex finished third Sunday, followed by Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.

Stewart, who left Joe Gibbs Racing to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, became the first owner-driver to win the title since Alan Kulwicki accomplished the feat in 1992.

"We said all week, (if) we just go out and win the race, we didn't have to worry about what he did — and that's what we did," Stewart said in Victory Lane, as rain pelted the winning team. "If this doesn't go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don't know what will."

Magnanimous in victory, Stewart turned the page from the relentless ribbing he had given Edwards during the weeks leading up to the finale.

"Great guy, and we've been giving him a rough time this week, but it was all in an effort to do what we did and that's to win this championship," Stewart, 40, said. "But it shows how classy a guy he is. He was the first one to me over there (to offer congratulations), and he just said, 'Promise me one thing: You'll enjoy this, and I hope you and I are in this position again next year.' "

Edwards' average finish in the Chase was 4.9, bettering the record 5.0 Johnson had in winning the 2007 title, but it wasn't good enough in NASCAR's closest title race ever.

Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, forced Edwards' hand late in the race by getting 56 laps out of a tank of fuel. Stewart came to pit road for the last time on Lap 211, 10 laps later than Edwards, with the option to go the rest of the way without pitting.

Grubb, who was told in the middle of the Chase he was being let go at the end of the season because the team wasn't performing, said: "It was a little tough and strained, but it honestly probably made the guys rally around a little more, just because we all felt like we were a team to beat and we wanted to prove that. We just did it."

Grubb said after Sunday's race his status is now uncertain, and Stewart did not address it.

After another brief caution for rain, the race went green for the final 37 laps, and Edwards did everything in his power to overtake his rival.

"We led the most laps (119), and Tony still managed, you know, him and Darian, to do a good job with their strategy," said Edwards, who ran second for the seventh time this season including the final three races. " … That's as hard as I can drive. I told my wife, if I can't win this thing, I'll be the best loser NASCAR has ever had, so I'm going to try very hard to keep my head up and know that we'll go next year and be just as hard to beat next year and just as hard the year after that."

Stewart was derailed early when contact with debris punched a hole in the grille of his No. 14 Chevrolet the size of a small saucer. Stewart, who said he didn't know what he hit or when, fell to 40th place as his crew made repairs under caution on Lap 17.

Later Stewart dropped to 38th but during a long green-flag run, Stewart passed car after car, typically powering harder and farther into Turn 3 than any other driver.

By the time of the long rain delay 109 laps into the race, Stewart had climbed to fifth. He made 118 passes total on the day.

"I feel like I passed half the state of Florida; 118 cars is a lot of cars to pass in one race," he said. "To do it under the circumstances and pressure we had, I'm very, very proud of that. I can't even remember how many races I've won, but I would have to say under this set of circumstances (this one) one of the greatest races of my career."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Complete standings, 2C

.FAST FACTS

Sprint Cup final points

Driver Points Back

Tony Stewart 2,403—

Carl Edwards 2,403—

Kevin Harvick 2,345 58

Matt Kenseth 2,330 73

Brad Keselowski 2,319 84

Jimmie Johnson 2,304 99

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,290 113

Jeff Gordon 2,287 116

Denny Hamlin 2,284 119

Ryan Newman 2,284 119

Kurt Busch 2,262 141

Kyle Busch 2,246 157

2012 opener

Daytona 500, Feb. 26, Daytona International Speedway

Tickets: daytonainternational

speedway.com

Winner in all ways

Tony Stewart is the first to clinch a title by winning the season finale. 2C

>>FAST FACTS

Closest finishes

The tightest title races in Sprint Cup history:

2011: Tony Stewart tied Carl Edwards, won on a tiebreaker.

2004: Kurt Busch beat Jimmie Johnson by 8 points.

1992: Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott by 10.

1979: Richard Petty beat Darrell Waltrip by 11.

1989: Rusty Wallace beat Dale Earnhardt by 12.

Tony Stewart wins NASCAR Sprint Cup championship by winning finale 11/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 21, 2011 12:33am]

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