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Aumann: Competitive season also provided some oddities

November 25, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart finished off 2011 with a hot streak not seen since Rusty Wallace. Carl Edwards accomplished an odd piece of trivia that hadn't been done since the Modern Era began. And a California driver named Jim Cook shares one unusual trait with Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.

Now that the season's over, it's interesting to look back on some of the odd facts behind the figures. And there were certainly a number of oddities to a season which had 18 different winners and a new face holding the championship trophy for the first time in six seasons.

Season of parity

The 2011 Sprint Cup Series season was the most statistically competitive in the series' 63-year history.

It actually shouldn't have come as a surprise to see Stewart winning in the title in 2011. After all, his three championships seem to be spaced in three-year intervals. He won his first in 2002, repeated in 2005, wrecked the pattern with an eighth-place finish in 2008, and then returned to form this season.

And when Stewart's on top, Jimmie Johnson is not. His worst three championship finishes -- including a career-worst sixth this season -- have come in years when Stewart has won the title. He finished fifth in both 2002 and 2005.

Stewart's win at Homestead gave him a record five victories in the Chase. So when was the last time a driver won at least half of the final 10 races of the season? You have to go back to 1993, when Wallace won five of eight -- Richmond, Dover, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and the season finale at Atlanta.

Edwards was the captain of consistency in 2011, leading the series in top-fives, top-10s and average finish. He was also one of only three drivers -- Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya being the others -- to be running at the finish in all 36 races.

Much was made of the fact that with his lone win at Las Vegas, Edwards was poised to become the first Cup champion with one victory since Matt Kenseth did it in 2003. But with 19 top-five finishes, Edwards' season more mirrored that of Benny Parsons when he won the 1973 championship.

Parsons' only win that season came at Bristol, but his 15 top-fives were equal to runner-up Cale Yarborough. And a crazy points system that included laps completed -- with Parsons having one fewer DNF than Yarborough -- gave Benny the title.

How unusual was Edwards' year? Since James Hylton had 22 top-five finishes in 47 starts to go with his one win in 1970, a driver has scored a single victory with 14 or more top-fives eight other times. Mark Martin did it twice -- in 1989 and 1991 -- and Jeff Gordon was the most recent to do it with one win and 16 top-fives in 2009.

Gordon, who turned 40 this year, finished eighth in the points for the first time since his second full season. Just to show how statistics can be misleading, Gordon led 922 laps in 2011 and won three races. In 2010, Gordon led 919 laps -- and failed to win.

Newman wonders what the numbers have against him. His 2011 season is almost a mirror image of 2005. He won the same number of races this year, had one additional top-five and top-10 finish -- and yet, he wound up 10th, whereas he was sixth six years ago.

Kevin Harvick finished third in the points for the second consecutive season. He likes repeat performances, apparently -- having two fourths and two 14ths in his career.

Kyle Busch may have finished outside of the top 10, but he led a season-high 1,455 laps. That makes four consecutive years in which Busch has led at last 1,000 laps. Only Johnson -- with five -- has more.

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On the other hand, Trevor Bayne led just 11 laps all year -- the fewest of any 2011 winner. And after his season-opening Daytona 500 upset win, Bayne failed to crack the top 10 again in 16 additional starts. His next best finish was 15th at Talladega in the fall.

How odd was Bayne's feat? The last driver to record a victory as his only top-10 finish of the season was in 1960, when Jim Cook won a 100-lap race on the mile horse track at the California State Fairgrounds in Sacramento. It was Cook's third and final start that year. In fact, Cook never made more than six starts in any of his 16 years in NASCAR. He finished with seven top-10s in 39 races.

One thing that was decidedly different: Cook took home $1,100 for his win in 1960, a far cry from the $1,463,813 Bayne received at Daytona. That big payday allowed Bayne to accumulate a total of $2,888,863 in purse money this season -- or approximately $5,000 more than Joe Nemechek made in 36 starts.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't the only driver to go winless in 2011. Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Montoya and David Reutimann failed to repeat their successes of the previous season. But Junior's streak -- which dates back to 2008 -- is mind-boggling.

Astute reader Coady Thibodeau pointed out that 26 different drivers have won at least one race since Earnhardt last visited Victory Lane. That list includes first-time winners Brad Keselowski (who has since won a total of four times), David Reutimann (who has two wins), Joey Logano, Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose.

How freaky is Junior's lack of success? All three of his Hendrick teammates have won during his tenure there. Each current full-time driver who was employed by Roush, Gibbs, Childress, Stewart-Haas, Ganassi, Penske and Red Bull at Homestead had at least one victory in that time span.

Despite a successful season in which Earnhardt made the Chase, consistently ran near the front for much of the summer and seemed destined to win at Charlotte before running out of fuel, he led just 52 laps all year. His previous low was 146 laps in 2009. For comparison, Junior led 106 laps on his way to his first Cup win at Texas in 2000.

The silver lining for fans of the No. 88 Chevrolet? Junior had his best points finish since 2006, and most top-fives and top-10s since 2008. And his totals have been steadily increasing the past three seasons.

Watch all 36 checkered flags from the 2011 Cup Series season: