Tony Stewart overcame adversity to beat Carl Edwards to victory at Homestead, claiming his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in the process.
The battle for the 2011 title will go down in the record books as the closest ever in the history of the series as Stewart and Edwards ended up tied in the points after 36 races, with Stewart clinching the title by virtue of his record-breaking five wins during the Chase to Edwards' single one during the year.
As Edwards had predicted the championship battle went all the way down to the final lap of the season as both title contenders raced for victory up front, clearly separating from the rest of the field as they did during the last few weeks of the play-off.
Stewart not only overcame the three-point deficit he had entering the season finale, but also circumstances that put him on the back foot a number of times during the 267 laps.
To start with, a broken grille caused by flying debris had to be replaced early on, putting him down to 40th after he had already broken into the top five from 15th on the grid. He then came from the back a second time after more repairs were necessary on the nose of his car during the second caution of the day.
Making some bold moves on restarts and passing many of his rivals for a second and even third time, Stewart eventually went on to claim the lead for the first time shortly before the halfway mark and right after the race was restarted from a red-flag interruption for rain.
Up until then Edwards had been the man at the front, leading the most laps and looking solidly in control of the race but Stewart's impressive recoveries made it clear to his rival that he could cope with almost anything the race threw at him.
Following the grille drama, Stewart faced further setbacks in the pits, both times after he had been leading the race. Meanwhile Edwards' pit crew did their job, allowing their driver to move up in front of Stewart again as they ended up running one-two entering the deciding stages of the race.
With 65 laps remaining Edwards pitted from the lead for four tyres and fuel, giving up the lead to Stewart, who entered fuel-conservation mode as his crew chief Darian Grubb made the call to try to complete the race with one stop less than Edwards.
For a while, Stewart had Edwards lapped as his rival's stop came under green flag conditions, but Edwards would get back on the lead lap and then jump to the front once the stops cycled. Stewart barely made it to his stall on the remaining fumes of fuel, getting his car's tank full for the last time plus taking four new tyres.
Rain then returned momentarily, causing the caution to wave for the eighth and eventually last time during the evening. Crew chief Bob Osborne called Edwards into the pits to top up with fuel and bolt on two new tyres, giving up track position but getting fuel initially out of the equation.
Although Edwards was later told he was short of fuel to make it to the end, the lengthy final caution ensured he was able to save enough to make it to the chequered flag, as did Stewart.
When the green waved, Stewart and Edwards surged to the front in that order again for a 36-lap showdown.
Edwards closed the gap to less than eight tenths of a second at one point as slower traffic marginally slowed down Stewart. Lap times were almost identical for both for most of the closing laps but despite Edwards' best efforts, he would end up crossing the finish line of the championship 1.306 seconds behind Stewart, losing the Chase lead that he had held for the past six weeks.
Stewart made 118 passes while overcoming trouble on the way to one of his best wins, becoming only the seventh driver in NASCAR history to clinch the title with a win in the season finale.
"I could not be more proud," said Stewart. "We had the problem early and had the hole in the nose, everybody on this team did a great job of getting it back going, then we had the contact with [David] Reutimann and had to come back in and fix it again.
"I told them 'Man, it is really going to make these guys mad when we come back twice and still kick their butt.'"
Edwards admitted defeat after giving his best on the track, which was not enough to claim his maiden Cup title. His main concerns during the race were tyre wear issues on his right front early on, and then engine dramas hitting fellow Ford drivers David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Greg Biffle.
In the end none of them hampered his performance in the deciding stages, but he just did not have enough to beat the charging Stewart.
"I just have to say congratulations to Tony," said Edwards. "Those guys earned it. They won half the races in the Chase and he is the champion and did a good job. My guys did a great job. We pushed him to the end and that is all I got. That is as hard as I can drive. I think it is really important to give Tony the credit. Those guys did a good job. That is everything I've got."
Martin Truex Jr, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five, while Kevin Harvick cliched third place in the championship with an eighth place finish.
The race, which took almost 3.5 hours to be completed, featured 26 lead changes which set a new record for the season finale at Homestead.
Results - 267 laps: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet 3h29m00.000s 2. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 1.306s 3. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 7.242s 4. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 7.539s 5. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 9.967s 6. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 11.772s 7. Kasey Kahne Red Bull Toyota + 12.476s 8. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 14.279s 9. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 14.505s 10. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 16.254s 11. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 17.177s 12. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 19.620s 13. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 19.813s 14. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 22.397s 15. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 22.624s 16. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 24.700s 17. Brian Vickers Red Bull Toyota + 24.727s 18. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 27.117s 19. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 27.489s 20. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 1 lap 21. Mike Bliss TRG Ford + 1 lap 22. Travis Kvapil Front Row Ford + 1 lap 23. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 1 lap 24. Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet + 1 lap 25. Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford + 1 lap 26. Casey Mears Germain Toyota + 1 lap 27. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 1 lap 28. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 2 laps 29. TJ Bell FAS Lane Ford + 2 laps 30. Geoffrey Bodine Baldwin Chevrolet + 4 laps 31. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 6 laps 32. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 6 laps 33. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 22 laps 34. Kurt Busch Penske Dodge + 47 laps Retirements: Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford 190 laps Landon Cassill Phoenix Chevrolet 153 laps Cole Whitt Red Bull Toyota 153 laps David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford 81 laps Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford 72 laps Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 29 laps JJ Yeley Front Row Ford 25 laps David Stremme Inception Chevrolet 14 laps Michael McDowell HP Toyota 13 laps