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Stewart's mind games play key role in his third career Sprint Cup title

Stewart's mantra was that he had nothing to lose. It was a warning to Edwards about what he could squander, and a reminder for Stewart as to what he could take.

Ever since last month's win at Martinsville -- when Stewart said Edwards had better be worried about him -- Stewart's personality has changed. While he could be surly in front of microphones and cameras, he embraced those opportunities with swagger. He delivered sound bites, wisecracks and quips that challenged Edwards, who did his best to deflect Stewart's barrage.

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Stewart's banter was more than entertaining for some. It kept the pressure off him and his team and sought to put it on Edwards and his team.

Stewart was as unwavering off the track as he would be on it Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, staying on point better than a Presidential candidate. It didn't matter if Edwards wasn't nearby, the message was the same -- I'm coming to take what you think is yours.

And he did.

With Edwards leading the most laps and running second late in Sunday's race, Stewart did the only thing he could to win the championship: He won what will be remembered as one of NASCAR's greatest races.

Stewart and Edwards finished tied for first in the points, but Stewart won the tiebreaker, scoring five wins -- all in the Chase -- this season to Edwards' one.

"We were one point shy,'' Edwards said. "That's just the way it is.''

Edwards smiled through the pain and vowed to be better next year. His crew chief, Bob Osborne, was ashen in defeat.

The mood was much different three days before the dramatic duel, when Stewart and Edwards sat beside each other on a stage before reporters. Stewart unleashed a fury of barbs.

It started when both were asked how far they would go to win the title if they were racing each other in the final lap.

"I'd wreck my mom to win a championship,'' Stewart said. "I respect [Edwards] as a driver but this isn't about friendships. This is a war. This is a battle. This is for a national championship.''

Edwards responded by saying: "Did you say something?''

"Yeah, you can visit my trophy in the room at Vegas when you come out there,'' Stewart said, referring to the Cup banquet in Las Vegas next week.

"He's got the talking part figured out,'' Edwards told the audience.

"They say there [are] talkers and doers. I've done this twice,'' Stewart said.

Now, he's won three championships, joining Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Lee Petty with as many championships.

Shortly before the green flag flew to start Sunday's race, Stewart gave his crew -- and maybe himself -- a pep talk with Edwards in mind.

"Guys, we've got nothing to lose today, nothing,'' Stewart radioed his team, adding extra emphasis when he said nothing. "There's nothing to worry about, there's no stress. We get to go have fun. He's the one that has to worry all day long about us. We just go out and do our thing and have a good time and we're going to enjoy this 400 miles. We'll take what it gives us and we'll go home happy, guys. We've got no shame either way.''

His title hopes almost went away immediately. A piece of debris ripped a hole through his car's front grille. A caution for rain allowed his team to spend time making repairs on pit road. He restarted 40th.

"They're going to feel like [crap] after we kick their ass after this,'' Stewart radioed his team, referring to Edwards and his team.

Stewart made it to 23rd before another caution allowed his team to complete the repairs, dropping him to 32nd on the restart. Stewart's braggadocio, though, remained intact even with more than 230 laps left.

"All right, they're even really going to feel worse now after we went back to the race twice and come back and kick their ass,'' he told his team on the radio.

He made it to fifth when rain delayed the race for more than an hour after lap 109 in the 267-lap event. Stewart spent the break joking with crew members and then walked past Edwards' car owner, Jack Roush, and delivered a zinger: "Tell your boy to get up on the wheel because ... I'm coming.''

Explained Stewart after the race: "I've screwed with everybody all week, why am I going to stop now? Jack looks at me like I've got three heads all of a sudden. I went about my business and got back in the car, laughing about it.''

Stewart, never shy to boast or play mind games during a title run, said he needed to do such things to beat Edwards, who was more consistent throughout the season and the Chase. Edwards' average finish in the Chase was 4.9 -- better than Jimmie Johnson's record average finish of 5.0 when he won the 2007 title. Stewart's average finish -- weighed down by a 25th at Dover -- was 6.3.

"I mentally tried to beat that kid up,'' Stewart said. "I felt I had to throw everything in my arsenal to get this opportunity. He's too nice to fight back.''

Edwards did his fighting on the track. He was fast throughout the weekend, won the pole and dominated part of the race.

"They showed a lot of mental toughness to watch us go lead the first half of this race essentially and not panic,'' Edwards said of Stewart's team.

"I was very, very impressed with Tony. I think that for all of the talk and all of the chest-pounding that he did, I could see that he was really ... nervous about this, too. They had to perform at a very high level, and I honestly thought that there was a good chance of them making a mistake, of him overdriving, trying too hard.''

Stewart confided after Sunday's race that his "nerves are absolutely shot.''

He did raise his voice twice during the race. Once was after a slow pit stop when a lugnut got stuck in air gun and forced crew chief Darian Grubb to call for a two-tire pit stop instead of four to keep Stewart from losing more time. After Stewart exited pit road, he yelled on the radio, asking what happened.

The other time came on the final pit stop when Stewart's engine burped as if it was out of fuel, causing Stewart to say on the radio, "We're out,'' before the engine fired again.

For all the talking Stewart did, it was what Grubb -- who confirmed afterward that the team told him last month he would not be back as crew chief -- said that might have mattered most.

"The funny part was listening to Darian actually get nervous,'' Stewart said of the final stages of the race when Stewart led. "He's like, 'OK, I'm not going to give you lap times any more, I'm giving you intervals.'

"The way he said that, it made me laugh in the car and that relaxed me more than anything the last 30 laps.''

With Edwards running second, he could only watch Stewart drive away with the championship.

Afterward, Edwards walked on the track when Stewart drove by to congratulate the champion. Edwards leaned into Stewart's car and they chatted.

"I hope a year from now,'' Stewart said Edwards told him, "we are in the same battle again just like this.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.