HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It was awfully hard for Carl Edwards to be disappointed Sunday after finishing fourth in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The finish, in the last race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup, wasn’t enough for Edwards to catch series leader Tony Stewart for the championship, leaving Edwards and race winner Greg Biffle runners-up 35 points behind in the standings. Edwards officially finished third, with Biffle winning a tiebreaker on total wins, six to four. But Edwards, a 26-year-old Columbia native who also raced in the Busch series this season, had no complaints, no regrets and no doubts about his future.
“Third in both series my first full year, nine total wins in both series, I am one of the most fortunate guys in the world,” he said in a report on nascar.com. “Our team is going to be even better next year. Hopefully 36 points better.”
Edwards, who completed just his first full year in the top NASCAR series, dominated Sunday’s race early, leading 94 laps. But during a late race caution, Edwards decided to take four tires on his final pit stop, putting him out of the top-10 entering the final laps.
The strategy, which had helped Edwards win at Dallas, didn’t work Sunday, though. He moved from 12th to fourth, but could not advance farther.
“We went in this thing and we pitted with four and I thought we could make it back up there,” Edwards said in the nascar.com report. “It’s still fun. The last 11 laps were great.”
Stewart earned his second NASCAR championship in four years, capping an uncharacteristically calm season for the former Bad Boy. He won races, kept his temper in check and avoided every major incident long enough to cement himself as one of the greatest drivers of his time.
Needing only to run clean, he hovered just outside the top 10 and away from any potential danger. Stewart ended up 15th.
Biffle won the Ford 400 for the second straight year by beating teammate Mark Martin in a door-to-door finish.
Stewart became just the 14th driver in NASCAR history with more than one championship and joined four-time winner Jeff Gordon as the only active full-time drivers with multiple titles.
“I don’t believe the trophy makes the man,” Martin said. “Tony Stewart, in my eyes, is the greatest race car driver I’ve watched drive in this era. A.J. Foyt might have been that when I was a little boy, but Tony Stewart is my driving hero.”
Stewart led the standings for 13 of the final 14 weeks. He was on top at the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship and fell off the leaderboard just once, when he dropped to fifth after Round 2.
Stewart raced his way back on top a week later and never looked back, notching six top 10 finishes during the Chase. By the time he got to Sunday’s finale, he needed to finish ninth or better to clinch the title.
Only Jimmie Johnson, Edwards and Biffle had a chance to beat him, and Johnson saw his hopes squashed 126 laps into the race when an apparent leak in his right rear tire finally gave out. The tire exploded and sent him smashing into the wall.
A two-time runner-up for the title the past two seasons, Johnson desperately wanted to avoid falling short yet again. Instead, he dropped back to fifth in a frustrating end to his season.
“I look back at the season and we did everything we could,” he said. “So I’m disappointed. I lived my whole life for this ... I’ll be back next year.”
With Johnson out, Stewart only needed to keep an eye on Edwards and Biffle. It wasn’t difficult, both of them were running at the front of the pack, far ahead of Stewart.
But as long as he didn’t make a colossal mistake, the title was his to lose. So he watched as the Roush Racing teammates battled for the win, focusing only on keeping his Chevrolet off the wall and on the lead lap.