This will be a different kind of February. Not only will this month have 29 days for the first time since 2008 but it will mark the first February since 2005 that the NASCAR world will start the season with a driver other than Jimmie Johnson as the defending Sprint Cup champion. Tony Stewart’s epic battle and victory over Carl Edwards over the 12 week Chase for the Sprint Cup re-energized the sport, providing unparalleled off-season momentum which will charge right into Daytona. We’re just 22 days away from the Gatorade Duel, the races that determine the starting line-up for the 54th annual Daytona 500 on February 26th.
The quote that kicked the 2011 season into hibernation should be one that awakes the sleeping giant for 2012. “If you don’t think this was one of the most exciting Chases to watch from a fan standpoint, you’ve got to go to a doctor immediately and get checked out” mused Stewart after celebrating his third Sprint Cup title.
Both Stewart and Edwards have done their fair share during the months that the engines are off, to keep that exciting Chase alive. Edwards popped up at the Detroit Auto Show and proclaimed to the Detroit Free Press, “I learned a lot about myself, about competition and I feel I’ll just be a tougher competitor in 2012.” He then tried to grow his fan base by reaching out to an entirely different audience, jetting off to New York City to co-host ‘Live w/Kelly’. Edwards already has a natural charm, being a farm boy from Columbia, Missouri, but he cranked it up a notch by portraying “Ben the Bachelor” as he and Ripa re-enacted a scene from the popular TV series ‘The Bachelor’. That surely earned him some new female fans who dominate the audiences for both ‘The Bachelor’ and “Live w/Kelly”. Following the acting debut, Edwards pumped up his sponsors for yet another new audience on the Fox Business Channel and that included giving props to UPS, who will take over the paint scheme on his car for one race in 2012. His racing New Year’s resolution “I’m really hoping it comes down to me and Tony again, battling it out, head-to-head, and I’m really hoping we can win this championship. But overall, if we can present this great sport, the way that we have, to the fans, and the sponsors can enjoy it, it’s going to be huge.”
Stewart also kept his plate full after the long season, accepting championship spoils at the annual NASCAR banquet, appearing in his hometown Christmas parade and even shooting a ‘Last Man Standing’ episode with funny man Tim Allen. He then parlayed his championship Sprint Cup run into another racing victory, just 56 minutes before the ball dropped on 2011, taking the checkered flag in the ‘Rumble in Fort Wayne’, a 50-lap indoor midget race. “It’s been a dream year,” said Stewart who rang in the New Year at that track. “I won my first World of Outlaws race and the NASCAR championship and then I won at Conseco (all-star kart race in Indianapolis) and won here two times. What a great way to finish the year, It’s going to be hard to keep this up, but it’s going to be a lot of fun trying.”
Only time will tell if the ‘Smoke’ has cleared on another chance to win a championship, but even with a new crew chief, Stewart still has the momentum of winning three of the final five races, including the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, in ‘The Chase’ on his side as they get do it all again, 38 more times, starting in just a few short weeks.