Friday, November 25, 2011

NASCAR’s championship finish mirrors Major League Baseball playoffs

This must be the year of unbelievable comebacks.

Tony Stewart won the Chase after going winless in NASCAR’s regular season and barely slipped into the final Chase spot based on points before going crazy and winning one of the most exciting championship races ever.

However, Stewart wasn't the only comback champion this fall. He followed the template set by the St. Louis Cardinals when they won the other fall championship on the sports calendar.

The similarities in how the two seasons finished are remarkable. The Cardinals were more than 10 games out of a playoff spot with a month to play, and Stewart said his team didn’t even deserve a spot in the Chase a month before Chase started.

Stewart sat 10th in the points standings just 14 points ahead of 11th when he made that statement after the race in August at Michigan. In fact, Stewart said that Aug. 27, the same day the Cardinals began their climb back into contention.

Both Stewart and the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs and had to wait until the final day of their respective regular seasons to find out if they would make the playoffs.

They both did and then went on a tear unlike any other their sports had seen from teams so far out of contention with a month to play.

Stewart won five Chase races and the Cardinals beat the teams with the two best records in the National League: the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers.
The comparisons don’t stop there, however. Stewart and the Cardinals both made the championship game, but neither were content to make those contests any less than thrilling.

Stewart entered the final Sprint Cup Series race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing points leader Carl Edwards by three points. The only way Stewart could guarantee himself the championship was if he won the race.

He did win the race, but he had to battle back from adversity throughout the event, and for much of the race it looked like Edwards had the championship in hand as he dominated the first half of the race.

Instead, Stewart took the lead late and Edwards finished second, resulting in a tie for the points lead. Stewart won the championship because he had more wins than Edwards, and Stewart would have lost the championship even if he finished second. There was no margin for error.

The Cardinals also had no margin for error as they entered Game 6 of the World Series facing elimination by the Texas Rangers. The Rangers had the Cardinals down to their final strike twice, but the Cardinals came back both times to win the game on a walk-off homerun by David Freese and win the series the following night.

In both cases, the contest came absolutely down to the wire. It isn’t possible to have a NASCAR points race closer than the tie between Stewart and Edwards, and a baseball team can’t be any closer to being eliminated than the one remaining strike the Cardinals had left.

One would think maybe these types of finishes happen fairly regularly, but NASCAR hadn’t had a championship finish where the top two drivers were separated by less than 10 points since 2004, although the points system changed for this season. Major League Baseball hadn’t had a World Series go to Game 7 since 2002 when the Anaheim Angels beat the San Francisco Giants.

On top of everything else, both championship head coaches won’t return the following year. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa already announced his retirement three days after the World Series ended, and Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb confirmed he won’t be atop the #14 team’s pit box in 2012.

This was just one of those amazing years where the championship moment is as thrilling as possible, but it is incredible that those moments in both sports happened in the same year.

Maybe that means we’re in line for a terrific Super Bowl this season, as well.


  1. You're missing something pretty big, though.

    Carl Edwards did nothing to lose the championship while the Texas Rangers choked it away in spectacular fashion.

  2. He didn't win the final game, though. In both cases, the comeback team did a remarkable job to stay in the fight and eventually win it. Neither Stewart nor the Cardinals took gifts to win their titles. They earned them.

  3. This is a real reach. There is no "playoff" system as such in Nascar. Its just a continuation of the trend of using stick and ball terms in an attempt to relate to those sports fans.

    To have a "playoff" there has to be an elimination process to determine the winner. Obviously Nascar doesnt have that.

    So please dont keep trying to pretend that it is a "playoff", its not.

  4. Anonymous - There is never going to be a true "playoff" in racing according to your terms. In that case, there would be only two drivers in the final race, and that would be terribly boring. Stewart still had to qualify for the postseason to be eligible to win the championship, just as the Cardinals did.

    Overall, you've missed the point that the finishes of both seasons were very similar.