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Notes: Junior consistent in 2011, but still lacking; BK, Wolfe re-up with Penske

December 01, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service,

Notes: Keselowski, Wolfe re-up with Penske; Stewart wins under any system

LAS VEGAS -- Buoyed by a seventh-place finish in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte were in excellent spirits at Wednesday night's Sprint media reception at the Wynn.

Both know, however, that more will be expected in 2012, and tops on the list will be a race win.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the favorite of the fans for the ninth consecutive year.

Earnhardt qualified for the Chase for the first time since 2008 and recorded his highest points finish since his fifth-place showing in 2006, when he drove for family-founded Dale Earnhardt Inc. Nevertheless, Earnhardt and Letarte failed to accomplish their foremost goal of the season -- winning a race a breaking a drought that reached 129 races at season's end.

The stark reality is that 2011 was a year of mixed results for Earnhardt. He posted 29 lead-lap finishes, his best total since 2006 (30 lead-lap finishes), and the second-best mark of his career.

Leading laps was another matter. Earnhardt posted the lowest total of laps led in his career -- 52 in 36 races. His previous low was 146 laps led in 2009. By way of comparison, Earnhardt led 896 laps in 2008, his first year with Hendrick Motorsports.

The obvious conclusion is that Earnhardt made the Chase with consistent finishes but rarely had the speed to challenge for a win. It's equally apparent that he and his No. 88 team expended so much effort in qualifying for the Chase that they had little left for the final 10 races, half of which Earnhardt finished outside the top 15.

"I read that stat, and I was kind of surprised," Earnhardt told Sporting News after Thursday's Myers Brothers Luncheon at Bellagio, where he was honored as Cup's most popular driver for the ninth consecutive year. "I really didn't take note of how many laps we led, but I remember, 15 races into the season, thinking to myself and talking to the media, that I had top-10 cars every week I started, and I'd really never had that before.

"And then we went back at the end of the season and looked back at the laps led, and we didn't do anything. We didn't do any work there. We're running inside the top 10 and we're running more competitively, but there weren't really any races, aside from maybe one or two, where we were a lead car -- running second third, on television, on the podium.

"We need to do a better job of that next year, and that's just simple speed."

New contracts for Keselowski, Wolfe

A breakout season clearly has its rewards.

Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe both received multi-year contract extensions, announced Thursday, after Keselowski won three races, qualified for the Chase and finished fifth in the final standings in his second full season with Penske Racing.

Wolfe joined Keselowski at the Cup level this year, after guiding him to the 2010 Nationwide Series championship. Together they're a formidable combination owner Roger Penske wants to keep intact long-term on the No. 2 Dodge team.

"With one NASCAR championship and numerous wins in both the Nationwide Series and the Cup Series to their credit, this has proven to be a special pairing," Penske said in announcing the extensions.

Keselowski told Sporting News on Thursday that he had kept the 2011 expiration of his contract a secret and thus had avoided the sort of furor that surrounded the protracted negotiations of Carl Edwards this year.

"Ha, ha, we fooled y'all, because y'all thought I was up at the end of 2012 when I was up this year," Keselowski said. "So ha, ha, ha, I felt pretty damned good about that one. It's very, very few and far between that we're able to sneak things in like that.

"I didn't choose to get the 'Carl' treatment. I chose to stick with one negotiating team, and that was Penske Racing and felt pretty damned good about that. I felt good about how the last year's gone, and I feel good about our future together, and I hope that the ability to secure both Paul and myself long-term will be a catalyst to continue to attract top talent to our team for years to come."

No matter how you score it, Stewart wins

New system, old system -- the result is the same.

In case you were wondering how much of a difference the change to a new, simplified scoring system made in the Cup championship race this season, the answer is: not much.

In other words, whether scored under the modified Latford system in place last year or the one-point-per-position model adopted for the 2011 season, Tony Stewart would be the champion either way.

There are subtle differences, but not enough to affect the drama of the final race at Homestead. Under the new system, Stewart trailed Carl Edwards by three points entering the final race, tied him by winning the race and won the title on a tiebreaker based on highest number of race wins during the season.

Had the Chase been scored as it was last year, Stewart would have come to Homestead with a four-point lead and, as the race played out, still would have had to beat Edwards to the checkered flag to secure the championship. He did, and the final margin would have been 14 points under last year's scoring.

The bottom line is that it wasn't the points system that made the 2011 Chase the most closely contested in the eight-year history of NASCAR's playoff format. Instead, two drivers at the absolute top of their respective games gave us a championship battle fraught with suspense and drama.

For more information on the 2011 Sprint Cup Series awards ceremony and NASCAR Champion's Week, click here.