Sharon Speedway was billed as the Battle of the Blaneys in the 2022 SRX season finale. Instead, it was another pair of famous names -- Elliott and Andretti -- who stole the show on dirt.
NASCAR Cup Series point leader Chase Elliott chased down Tony Stewart in the closing laps, taking the victory at the 3/8-mile track to stay undefeated in SRX competition (2 for 2 in main events). Behind him, Marco Andretti nursed his car home in ninth, enough to earn the championship despite breaking his wrist in a wreck with eight laps remaining.
It was a wild, unpredictable end to season two of this All-Star Series, a six-race stint that revitalized the careers of Andretti and Ryan Newman, among others.
What five memorable moments will live on after the summer finale?
Marco Andretti was a deserving champion
Andretti spent much of Saturday night going punch-for-punch with Newman atop the standings. An eight-point deficit was cut to four entering the main event, keeping the pressure on Andretti as both drivers swapped positions inside the top 5.
It all came to a head on lap 32, when Newman restarted on the inside of the front row with Andretti directly behind him. The cars made contact, dumping Newman and leaving both cars heavily damaged at the back of the field.
"Drove through Newman," was Joey Logano's initial call in the CBS booth. He may have been right, but the contact wound up a wash as Newman restarted ahead of Andretti, nursing less damage. Shouts of "you're done" could be heard on the radio as Andretti's car struggled to get repaired; he restarted shotgun on the field (13th).
But just 10 laps later, Andretti couldn't avoid the car of Dave Blaney in front of him.
"I couldn't get it stopped," Andretti explained. "And then my wrist was in the wheel when the wheel spun on me."
That injury left the 35-year-old driver in serious pain during the final eight laps (surgery is scheduled for Tuesday). But somehow, despite just one good hand, he kept Newman only one position ahead of him to secure the title.
The final margin between them was two points. That stirred up buzz after Andretti was awarded an extra three points due to an incorrect call by series officials at Five Flags Speedway. Detractors will point to that or the fact Andretti didn't win a race this season as reasons the title should have gone to someone else.
They're wrong. Newman was outstanding but Andretti was every bit as good, boasting five runner-up finishes, including three straight in main events. It's a major step forward from the worst IndyCar season of his career in 2020, hitting rock bottom as a part-time driver just before SRX began in 2021.
Through 12 races, and especially the six this year, Andretti has relearned consistency, competitiveness and how to adjust your car over the course of a long run. A man who never even thought of racing stock cars for a living could now be on the verge of a NASCAR Xfinity Series ride. Even the racing Godfather, Mario, understands the impact SRX has had on his grandson's career.
"To have a champion sitting there with a brace on his wrist," Tony Stewart said afterward, "Because he's broke his wrist shows how hard and how much these guys want to win races and win championships with SRX."
Tony Stewart remains a must watch
Speaking of Stewart, Sharon Speedway is owned by Dave Blaney yet there were just as many Tony shirts in the grandstands Saturday night. Stewart had no business competing for the victory, posting finishes of eighth and ninth within the first two heats that left him a shadow of his typical self on dirt.
"I tried everything I've learned my entire life on dirt and pavement and a combination of both," Stewart said. "And couldn't get going."
Yet by lap 34, there Stewart was, side by side with Elliott for the top spot. He led 11 laps and was briefly the point leader before Elliott passed him for good with just four laps remaining. That ended Stewart's undefeated streak in dirt main events (3 for 3). But he remained the only driver to win multiple mains for two years running, a standout in this series at age 51 that looks every bit as talented as when he won three Cup championships.
Ryan Newman had been out of the spotlight this season after losing his NASCAR Cup ride. But in six SRX races, the 44-year-old driver made it clear he's got plenty left in the tank.
There was the memorable win at Stafford Motor Speedway, his biggest since tragedy nearly struck in the 2020 Daytona 500. Overall, Newman finished seventh or better in 16 of the 18 races held this year, including heats. It was a remarkable run of consistency.
"The outcome is not what we wanted, but to be second in the championship with some of the greatest drivers in the world is still pretty special," Newman said. "Happy to be a part of it and excited to hopefully get a chance to do it again."
Paul Tracy plays necessary villain role
A lot of fans hoping to see the Blaneys dice it up in front left disappointed within the first few minutes. An incident between Tracy and Michael Waltrip caught up half the field in Heat 1, destroying the cars of Ryan Blaney and Matt Kenseth to the point they weren't able to get back on track until the main event.
"Knocked the oil lines out of it," said Ryan Blaney after the mess. "Hate coming out here to be in the stands and watching."
It was one of four incidents on the night for Tracy, giving him the most overall in SRX for a second straight year. But while fans and drivers were angered by his driving, Tracy's presence keeps spicing up the field. It's not as if the former open-wheel champion can't wheel it -– he had five straight top-5 finishes at one point this year -- and in a world where drivers can be corporate shills, he's never boring.
Odds 'N' Ends
Tracy and Michael Waltrip remain the only two drivers to start all 12 SRX races who haven't won either a heat race or a main event… IndyCar star Helio Castroneves won the series opener at Five Flags Speedway and Andretti won the SRX championship. In between? It was all NASCAR, sweeping the final five main events with Stewart winning twice, Elliott, Newman and Bobby Labonte taking home the trophies… Matt Kenseth had another incredible comeback, charging all the way to third in the main event despite starting shotgun on the field with a damaged race car. "I would like a little less hitting and … less wrecking" he said when asked about SRX year three… with Dave Blaney falling short at Sharon, Doug Coby remains the only Local All-Star to win a main, doing so way back in the SRX season opener at Stafford (2021).