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Championship race for the ages was story of 2011

December 28, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Championship race for the ages was story of 2011

For Carl Edwards, it began with a runner-up finish at Daytona that would herald an onslaught of top-10s that would keep him at or near the top of the point standings all season. For Tony Stewart, it began with a mediocre result in the Great American Race that precipitated a year-long course in crisis management. As the 2011 Sprint Cup campaign unfolded, there were very few hints at the greater drama that would eventually ensnare both of these competitors at the end.

Because they seemed to be traveling in completely opposite directions -- the cool, smooth Edwards knocking out strong finishes week after week, the combustible Stewart forced to rebound again and again. By the halfway mark of the season, Edwards had led the points for 12 weeks, and Stewart was on the verge of falling out of Chase contention, his title hopes dangling dangerously, just as his No. 14 car was from a tire barrier after being wrecked at Infineon Raceway.

Winning his way


Tony Stewart's fifth Chase victory made him a three-time Cup Series champ. Smoke needed every one as he and Carl Edwards finished in a dead heat and Stewart won on the tiebreaker.

So perhaps that's what made the endgame so irresistible. No question, the finish was fantastic, that final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway so galvanizing that no one could tear their eyes away from it. But the epic quality to this 2011 championship race seemed to stem from elsewhere, from the apparent disparity between the two programs, one that had been at the top all season and another that got by on grit and guile. Stewart didn't just beat Edwards to win his third championship in NASCAR's premier series -- he overcame struggles within his own program, a team that too often seemed teetering on the brink, that endured personnel changes and at one point was so average that the driver himself said he'd be wasting a Chase spot.

And that, more than anything else, is why this otherworldly championship race is the obvious top choice for story of the year in NASCAR. At its essence, this was a comeback tale, one in which an underdog overcame all kinds of problems, and beat a near-flawless opponent by delivering the race of his life when it counted most. Edwards did everything perfectly over the final stages of the season, finishing 11th or better in the final 13 races, finishing second in each of the final three events, posting an average result of 4.4 over the span of the Chase. And he wound up second -- on a tiebreaker, of all things -- to a guy who had fired his competition director and crew chief, who time and time again seemed out of it, who opened the final race by getting a hole punched into his front grille.

In retrospect, it seems even more impossible than when it was happening live. Given the numbers he posted, Edwards would have won the title in any other year of the Chase era, and under any other scenario other than the one that unfolded on that memorable night in South Florida. Stewart, though, would not be denied. Despite his team's shortcomings, despite issues with his race car, despite having a lame-duck crew chief, despite every shred of logic that seemed to indicate he shouldn't be able to do what he was doing, Stewart pushed the No. 14 car three-wide again and again, went from the back to the front again and again, and claimed the championship in a manner no one had ever seen.

It was impossible. And yet, it happened. And no one who witnessed it will ever forget it.

The rest of the top 10 stories from the 2011 season in NASCAR:

2. The end of the run. Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented reign atop NASCAR's premier series had to end sometime, and it did in 2011. Although the five-time champ stood third in the standings, only four points out, after winning the Chase race at Kansas, the No. 48 team just didn't have the speed in its cars, and made too many mistakes to stay in it. Although he wasn't eliminated until Phoenix, Johnson's crash in the fall Charlotte race essentially signaled the end of the most dominant title run the sport has ever seen.

On the outside looking in | Caraviello: Reign over, but Johnson set standard | Vegas speech

3. "Are you kidding me?" Those were the words spoken over the radio by Trevor Bayne after the youngster shocked the motorsports world with his victory in the Daytona 500. The fact that a 20-year-old -- and just barely -- had won the Great American Race was irresistible enough. The fact that he won it for the Wood Brothers, that venerable, beloved old NASCAR franchise that had fallen on such hard times, made the moment even sweeter. The Woods hadn't won in 10 years, and now they had won Daytona. There was something special about seeing the baby-faced Bayne alongside team patriarchs Glen and Leonard Wood in Victory Lane.

Bayne youngest 500 winner | Caraviello: Woods turn improbability into reality | Press Pass: Bayne

4. The rise of Brad K. In 2010, he was a struggling young driver trying to find his way in NASCAR's premier series. One-third of the way through the 2011 season, he was buried in points, and seemingly an afterthought. And then, something amazing happened -- Brad Keselowski emerged, almost overnight, into a driver capable of winning races and championships. He notched three race wins, and was in the thick of the Chase until only three weeks remained. It was an astonishing transformation, and one that shows every sign of continuing into 2012.

Menzer: Strength in simplicity | Caraviello: Growth began at Chicago | Reality still a dream

5. The trouble with Kyle. Kyle Busch won four races this past season, and was the top seed entering the Chase. But no one will remember that. They'll remember his run-in with Kevin Harvick in the final laps at Darlington, which resulted in a probationary period and the teams scuffling in the garage. They'll remember him getting ticketed for driving a high-performance passenger car 128 mph in a 45 zone, and losing his driver's license for a short time. They'll remember him wrecking Ron Hornaday under caution in a Camping World Truck Series race at Texas, and getting parked for the remainder of the weekend. Hopefully, Busch will leave more positive memories in 2012.

Busch, Harvick agree to disagree | License suspended | Parked at Texas | Menzer: Look in the mirror

6. Feels like the first time. Bayne's victory in the Daytona 500 ushered in the era of the first-timer, as a number of drivers finally scored their debut victories on NASCAR's premier series. Regan Smith did it at Darlington, making a pit-strategy gamble pay off. David Ragan did it in the summer event at Daytona. Paul Menard did it at Indianapolis, holding off Jeff Gordon on a long final fuel run. And Marcos Ambrose did it at Watkins Glen, where the former V8 Supercar driver finally closed the deal on a road course.

Smith's celebration | Ragan's redemption | Menard's validation | Menzer: Ambrose's win RPM's apex

7. Junior's comeback. It had been a rough past two seasons for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Despite the benefit of powerful Hendrick Motorsports equipment, NASCAR's most popular driver had staggered home 25th and 21st, and led many to wonder if he would ever contend again. He did in 2011, benefitting from a new voice in his ear and recording a seventh-place points finish that was his best since 2006. He didn't win, and the skid now stands at 129 races, but he gave himself a chance at places like Charlotte and Martinsville, and provided hope that the drought-buster lies ahead.

Caraviello: Confidence game | Most popular again | Caraviello: Earnhardt finds comfort in spotlight

8. It takes two. It looked strange, cars zipping around Daytona International Speedway in pairs, as if their bumpers were hooked together. But it was the fastest way around the track, thanks to a recent resurfacing and tweaks to the front ends of the vehicles. Not all fans and drivers liked it, but it was certainly different, and it unquestionably strung out the field -- lessening the impact of the Big One -- at Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR is working to try to bring back the pack racing fans are more used to seeing on restrictor-plate tracks. We'll see in February whether they've achieved that goal.

Blind faith | Truex: Trials at 200+ mph fun | Major changes being made to cooling systems

Starting over


Kurt Busch leaves Penske Racing with a dearth of open seats and no announced plans for the future. It was a move that was unexpected even two months ago.

9. The trouble with Kurt. Not to be outdone by little brother Kyle, Kurt Busch had his own share of issues in 2011, the kind that also overshadowed notable accomplishments on the track. Kurt won two races and made the Chase for the sixth time in eight years, but he also raged at his team over the radio in the spring race at Richmond, had a run-in with reporters in the fall race there, and cursed out a pit reporter at Homestead. To top it all off, he split with Penske immediately after the season, and will drive James Finch's car next year. Again -- let's work on better memories for 2012, shall we?

Menzer: Karma comes around | Caraviello: Own worst enemy | Seeing sports psychologist

10. The kids are all right. They certainly seemed that way, as NASCAR's other two national divisions were won by young drivers who seem to have all kinds of talent to burn. Austin Dillon, the 21-year-old grandson of Richard Childress, prevailed in the Camping World Truck Series, giving the black No. 3 its first title since Dale Earnhardt's last Cup crown in 1994. And 24-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went from nearly losing his ride in 2010 to a Nationwide championship in 2011. Look for head-to-head duels next year, when both drivers will be battling on the Nationwide tour. NASCAR's future seems in good hands.

YIR: Title sweeter for family-oriented Dillon | YIR: Stenhouse turns NNS upside down

Surprises

1. Brad Keselowski. Where did he come from? A driver who didn't record a single top-five finish in all of 2010, who stood 25th in points after the Coca-Cola 600 in May, catches fire to win three times and become a major factor in the championship race. Keselowski's development speaks to the chemistry between him and crew chief Paul Wolfe, but also to the patience of owner Roger Penske, who stuck with his struggling young driver even in a sport that's all about winning right now.

2. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Speaking of patience, Jack Roush showed plenty of it with Stenhouse in 2010, a season in which the Nationwide driver wrecked too many cars to count and was even pulled from the car for a couple of races. It all turned around, first with a Rookie of the Year surge late last season, and then with an impressive championship run in which Stenhouse withstood everything Elliott Sadler could throw at him. No question, the kid seems ticketed for the big time.

3. Danica Patrick. The lady can drive, folks. Time to admit it. Fourth at Las Vegas, setting a record for a female driver at NASCAR's national level. Tenth at Chicagoland. Tenth at Daytona in July. Eleventh at Texas in the fall. An average finish over her 12 Nationwide starts of 17.4, a statistic skewed by the wreck she was involved in during the season finale at Homestead. All the signs are there. And now that she's a full-time NASCAR driver, expect that kind of progress to continue at a more rapid rate.

Disappointments

1. Joe Gibbs Racing. A team that's supposed to challenge for the Sprint Cup title spent the end of the season watching others vie for the crown. Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 bunch never seemed to get over their near-miss from the year before. Kyle Busch's four wins were overshadowed by negative issues on- and off-track. Joey Logano was unable to build on his closing surge in 2010. Now, Hamlin and Logano will have new crew chiefs. This is a team with all kinds of promise, and drivers with all kinds of talent, and ninth, 12th, and 24th in final points is not what anyone expects.

2. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Jamie McMurray's three wins from 2010 seem a long time ago. Juan Montoya's Chase run from 2009 feels like a mirage. This isn't an elite team on the level of Gibbs -- sorry, Chip -- and the bar isn't set quite as high, but this is still an outfit that should be at least contending for Chase berths on a regular basis, and it hasn't been able to get there. Certainly, 21st and 27th in final points isn't what the organization envisioned. Certainly, the drivers are talented. On occasion, the cars have been fast. No question, Earnhardt-Childress engines are stout. It's time for EGR to put everything together.

3. Kentucky Speedway. The single most embarrassing moment of the year in NASCAR was before the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, when a long line of cars stretched outside the race track, and officials had no place to put them. Memories of that miles-long traffic jam, and ticket holders who missed some or all of the race, will linger for some time. Buying more land for parking helps. We'll find out June 30 how much things have changed.

Awards

Driver of the Year: Tony Stewart. Hard to argue with a record five Chase race victories, and a come-from-behind championship won on a tiebreaker. NASCAR wants wins to mean something, and this year they certainly did. Bonus points for those hair-raising three-wide moves in the finale at Homestead. Runner-up: Carl Edwards. Did everything it took to win the championship, and still watched someone else hoist the Sprint Cup. He scored 19 top-fives and led the points for 23 weeks, testaments to consistency in a sport where that kind of thing matters. Honorable mention: Jeff Gordon. A disappointing Chase can't eclipse three victories and a season that put him back on the map as a title contender. He also recorded his 85th career victory, putting him behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson on the sport's all-time list.

Crew Chief of the Year: Steve Letarte. Was brought over to the No. 88 team with the express goal of rebuilding Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s confidence, and succeeded. Earnhardt didn't win, but Letarte played a major role in putting him back in the championship conversation. Runner-up: Darian Grubb. Somehow held together the No. 14 team in the final weeks of a championship run even though he knew he'd been out of a job. Made a gutsy pit call at Homestead that helped Stewart win the title. Honorable mention: Bob Osborne. If you want to nitpick, maybe setup misses at Kansas and Martinsville prevented the No. 99 team from winning the title. But in each case they recovered, and Osborne's cars were fast at the end of every Chase race, and were stunningly dependable almost every week.

Car Owner of the Year: Jack Roush. Won the Nationwide Series championship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and nearly became the first car owner to sweep NASCAR's top two titles in the same season. Saw Matt Kenseth snap a 76-race winless streak, win twice, and stay in title contention until two weeks remained. Saw David Ragan break through at Daytona. Now all the guy needs is some sponsorship. Runner-up: Tony Stewart. Has always made the right personnel moves to keep this once-unheralded team climbing toward elite status. We'll see if that continues now that Steve Addington has replaced Grubb. Honorable mention: Rick Hendrick. Had three drivers make the Chase, and supplied the parts, pieces, and advice that helped Stewart win the championship.

Race of the Year: Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway. Galvanizing from beginning to end. Stewart overcomes early trouble, makes crazy three-wide passes on the race track, overtakes a zillion cars, takes a big pit-strategy gamble, gets a break with the rain, and wins the title the only way he can. Runner-up: Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway. Maybe not the best Daytona 500, and people still squirm over that tandem drafting, but seeing Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers in Victory Lane is something no one will ever forget. Honorable mention: Showtime Southern 500, Darlington Raceway. Regan Smith stays out on old tires and holds off Edwards, and Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch tangle on the race track while their teams rumble in the garage.

Comeback of the Year: Jeff Gordon. He has a little more gray around the temples, and he gets asked about retirement more often, but with three victories and a solid regular season, 2011 proved to be a career renaissance for the four-time champion. Runner-up: Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM ended 2010 out of cash, and with people wondering if they could even afford to get to the race track. It ended 2011 with a race victory thanks to Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen, and a career-best points finish by A.J. Allmendinger. Now the challenge is sustaining it, given that 'Dinger is gone and questions surround the No. 43. Honorable mention: Brian Vickers. He didn't have the best of seasons, and his future is up in the air given the closure of his Red Bull team, but after a major health scare that sidelined him for much of 2010, it was good to have Vickers back on the race track.

Quote of the Year: Camping World Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter, after being black-flagged as the leader on the final restart in the June race at Texas: "God bless America." Where did that come from? "I guess I was so mad over that whole situation," Sauter said recently. "... Actually, the first thing that came to my mind was to just stand in front of the camera and say the Pledge of Allegiance, just to throw everybody off their mark. But I figured God bless America was good enough. I don't know where that came from. I'm a pretty sarcastic person ... so just trying to get a rise out of people, I guess, and not give them what they want."

Runner-up: Stewart, after winning at Martinsville to close the gap on points leader Edwards: "Carl Edwards had better be real worried. That's all I've got to say. He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."

Honorable mention: Stewart again, in the championship press conference on Miami Beach before the final race: "I'd wreck my mom to win a championship. I'll wreck your mom to win a championship. ... I respect him as a driver, but this isn't about friendships this weekend. This is a war. This is a battle. This is for a national championship. It's no holds barred this weekend. I didn't come this far to be one step away from it and let it slip away, so we're going to go for it."

Early 2012 championship pick

Jeff Gordon. The 66-race winless streak is history, long left behind him. Gordon's troublesome Chase obscures the fact that he was viewed by many as the favorite heading into the playoff this past year. With three victories, he enjoyed his best season since his championship near-miss of 2007. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson have now had a year together, and comprise a formidable duo. For the four-time champion, the drive for five is alive.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.