HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 21: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, poses with the Championship trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 and the 2011 Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 21, 2011 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Our reporter found it hard to leave Homestead-Miami Speedway after a magical night for NASCAR.
It was well past midnight, and NASCAR's Chase finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway had been over for hours. Sunday had turned into Monday, and the offseason had officially begun. It was probably time for me to leave.
Instead, I found myself making excuses to stay.
I walked into the media center to grab a lukewarm slice of pizza, even though I wasn't hungry. I lingered nearby as Tony Stewart conducted a TV interview with a European channel, even though I had all the quotes I needed. I had "How cool was that?" conversations with nearby acquaintances, even though we all thought the race was equally cool.
And why not? After all, why would anyone be in a hurry to leave the track on a night like this?
The pre-race expectations and hype created for the Ford 400 had been completely blown away. The incredible performance by Stewart and Carl Edwards – a one-on-one, straight-up duel to a virtual draw – meant this will be the championship race by which all others will be judged for decades to come.
Over 10 weeks of playoff races and thousands of miles, two of NASCAR's brightest stars drove as hard as they possibly could and ended up with the exact same point total.
When the checkered flag fell, a tiebreaker decided NASCAR's championship for the first time in history. A tiebreaker! Are you kidding me?
I was among the morons who believed Stewart when he said at the start of the Chase that his team hardly deserved to be among the 12 finalists and that his No. 14 car would not be a factor in the championship.
I believed him so much, in fact, that I picked him to finish 12th. Last.
I mean, come on. Who could have thought this would happen? Certainly not Stewart, who hadn't won a single race 10 weeks ago. But then, with everything on the line, he won five events in the Chase – including three of the final four races.
And though performances at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix were impressive for both Stewart and Edwards, it was Homestead that became the defining moment of Stewart's Hall of Fame-caliber career.
Even A.J. Foyt, Stewart's childhood hero who is as tough on the driver as anyone, said it was Stewart's best race ever.
When else had he overcome so much with so much on the line?
A piece of debris busted a hole in the grille early in the race, and Stewart fell to 40th place following repairs. Contact with David Reutimann after climbing back through the field, and it was back to Square One – or Square 35th, in this case.
Both times, in a moment of moxie, Stewart declared Edwards and his team were "going to feel like shit after we kick their asses after this!"
The driver they call "Smoke" had been making such brash statements all week long. He verbally assaulted Edwards in every chance he could – just trying to rattle his opponent, he said later – and repeatedly declared himself the champion before the weekend even arrived.
Stewart even smack-talked Edwards' team owner, Jack Roush, on pit road – in the middle of the race, during a rain delay.
But as Stewart said in quoting his favorite musician, Kid Rock: "It's not cocky if you can back it up."
And back it up was exactly what he did.
Stewart's willpower was evident to anyone who watched Sunday's race, as he slung his car into three- and four-wide situations in order to make crucial passes and get closer to the lead.
With Edwards also running well, Stewart had to win the race. That's the only way he would have become champion.
And with absolutely everything on the line, he did. That kind of stuff just doesn't happen in NASCAR, where those moments have been few and far between. In fact, Stewart became the first champion in history to overcome a points deficit in the final race by winning the darn thing.
Stewart's victory was well-received by many Homestead fans, who high-fived and pumped their fists as if they were part of the No. 14 crew.
It was special to witness, because it reminded observers – fans and media alike – of why many of us came to fall in love with NASCAR in the first place.
Single-file racing and few passes up front at many 1.5-mile tracks have not done much to spark interest, and those races certainly aren't the best shows NASCAR has to offer.
But this one was. Because of what was on the line and the relentless battle between the top two contenders, I left the track believing that was the best day of racing I'd ever covered.
A few colleagues with decades more experience than I have said they felt the same way.
So naturally, I didn't want to leave. I didn't want it to end. There was a feeling in the air that we'd just witnessed greatness; people exchanged knowing smiles with one another, nodding and grinning.
Eventually, realizing it really was time to leave, I reluctantly climbed into my rental car. But I couldn't quite close the door at first – not on the warm breeze outside, nor on the season.
I finally started the engine and began to roll toward the infield tunnel – and thus leave a racetrack for the final time in 2011 – when I suddenly pulled over.
I needed just a few more minutes to take it all in.
Just then, a golf cart carrying a few NASCAR public relations representatives drove by. One caught my eye, gave me a quizzical look and a half-wave, as if to say, "Everything OK?" I was momentarily embarrassed someone had spotted me in my moment of NASCAR zen.
'Ah, screw it,' I thought. I leaned back in my seat and turned the motor off. I wanted just a little more time with the quiet speedway on a magical night.