News & Media

Cup Year in Review: From Daytona to Homestead, 2011 was the year of the surprise

December 17, 2011, David Caraviello,

From Daytona to Homestead, 2011 was the year of the surprise in the Cup Series

Who would have thought it?

A virtual unknown winning the sport's biggest race in just his second career Sprint Cup start, driving for a team that hadn't won anything in a decade. A single-car organization operating out of Colorado, claiming one of the oldest races on one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. A driver who hadn't managed as much as a single top-five finish the season before evolving into a multiple-time winner and championship contender. Fuel-mileage gambles turning the sport on its head, leading to a spate of unlikely winners and Chase candidates. A series champion who looked nothing like a title hopeful two-thirds of the way through the season, who scraped his way into the Chase only to set a record for wins in the playoff, who ended the reign of a five-time defending champion -- and then fired his crew chief after it was all over.

Who would have thought it? Any of it?

Season of surprise

In 2011, 36 races were won by 18 different drivers -- five of them were first-time winners -- on 23 different tracks in 20 different states. Winless streaks were broken, feuds continued and a remarkable reign ended.

But that's the kind of season 2011 was in NASCAR's premier division, a Sprint Cup campaign defined by surprises, many of them occurrences that just a year earlier would have been dismissed as outlandish. Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500? Regan Smith winning at Darlington? Brad Keselowski winning three races? Tony Stewart vaulting from completely outside the championship conversation to winning five Chase events, and ending Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented run by beating Carl Edwards in -- of all things -- a tiebreaker on the season's final day? In early February, the Las Vegas odds on any of that happening would have been astronomically long. In late November, anyone prescient enough to put real money down would be picking out his private jet.

In retrospect, it all seems so crazy, it makes the head hurt. After all, 2011 was launched from a season in which form held, in which order reigned, in which the things that everybody thought would happen did. The year 2010 saw Johnson take his fifth consecutive title, saw Richard Childress Racing return to prominence, saw the usual cast of heavy-hitters dominate the schedule. The closest thing to a surprise was Jamie McMurray winning three races -- a triple crown of sorts in the Daytona 400, Brickyard 400 and fall Charlotte race -- but even he competed for a major team with full sponsorship, and hardly qualified as an underdog. No, for all its twists and turns 2010 was a season as reliable as the tide, capped once again by the sight of that No. 48 team on the big stage in South Florida.

And then came 2011.

And things started to get strange.

It started at Daytona, with this bizarre two-car draft that seemed like something from another planet, pods of vehicles racing around the track. It wasn't intentional, it wasn't designed, but given the resurfacing at Daytona International Speedway and the tweaks made to the cars' front ends, it proved the fastest way around. Suddenly, drivers had not only their teammates, but other competitors wired into their radios. Spotters came down from atop the grandstand looking as weary as air traffic controllers after a bad day at LaGuardia. Restrictor-plate racing had changed, for the time being at least, and it resulted in polarizing opinions in the grandstand and efforts by NASCAR to turn back the clock. For the time being, though, it was just different, something everyone had to adjust to. There was something else different, too -- that kid in the No. 21 car.

No question, he was good in the draft, showed as much in practice and preliminary events. Jeff Gordon gushed about him. But still -- win the Daytona 500? But that's just what Bayne did, muscling his way up front when it counted, holding on through restarts at the end, and claiming the Great American Race in just his second career start, and at the ripe old age of 20. Sweetening the plotline even more, he did it in a car owned by the Wood Brothers, that venerable NASCAR institution that had last won in 2001. Their car had been built by powerful Roush Fenway, and Bayne wasn't even a full-time driver, but at the moment none of that mattered. Everyone was just to stunned to believe it, even the race winner himself.

"Are you kidding me?" Bayne asked over the radio after crossing under the checkered flag.

Nope. And that was only the start of it.

For a little while, sanity returned. Jeff Gordon won at Phoenix to snap a 66-race winless streak, and herald a career renaissance for a driver who would go on to win three times and enjoy his best season since 2007. Carl Edwards won at Las Vegas, a victory that at the time seemed to have little significance beyond that day in Nevada, but in fact would represent the three-point margin between him and Stewart entering the final race of the year. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Johnson -- the winners came fast and familiar, seeming to set a tone, normalcy returning and the upheaval at Daytona fading a little more with each passing day.

What did you think?

NASCAR Nation invites you to submit your thoughts, commentary, recaps, and insights on the entire 2011 season.

And then, Darlington. On NASCAR's oldest major race track, and with a Southern 500 title at stake, Regan Smith stayed out on old tires and somehow outran everyone to the finish. Furniture Row Racing, an outfit based out of Denver that got help from RCR and a pit crew from Stewart-Haas, had beaten the establishment for one of the most sought-after trophies in the sport. Smith's personal breakthrough was overshadowed only by the melee unfolding in the garage area, a scrape between the 18 and 29 teams sparked by Busch wiping out Harvick late in the event. It was the continuation of bad blood between the two, and the beginning of a season that would have Busch in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Later he'd briefly lose his license for driving a high-performance street car 128 mph in a 45 zone, and then get parked by NASCAR for taking out Ron Hornaday under caution in a Camping World Truck Series event.

Ultimately, Busch would lead more laps than any other driver in 2011, yet finish outside the top 10 in final points. That night, though, was about Smith, and nothing could wipe the smile off his face. Another one of the little guys had risen up. He would not be the last.

But first, though, there was the issue of math -- as in, calculating how many drops of fuel were left in a car's gas tank. That seemingly simple process would become a maddening one over the course of the 2011 season, particularly given that NASCAR had introduced a new self-venting fuel can that took a little longer to get all the gas in the car. Some teams had issues getting the car full, and ran dry as a result. Others ran out during a spate of fuel-mileage events that put more of an emphasis on strategy and calculation than ever before, and helped shape the year as a whole. That process was on display in the late spring at Kansas, where Keselowski stretched his fuel to record his first victory in the No. 2 car.

Keselowski? Remember him? Zero top-fives in a frustrating freshman season at Penske in 2010. Twenty-fifth in points the week before his Kansas victory, which proved to be no fluke when he win twice more -- at Pocono and Bristol -- to finish off a breakthrough season in which he morphed from also-ran into championship contender. A guy who seemed completely off the radar in May was in the thick of the title race in October, and earned his first top-five finish in final points. Who would have thought it? Yeah, it was that kind of season.

And on and on and on it went. David Ragan held off the pack in the summer Daytona race to record his long-awaited first career win and put himself in the Chase mix. Paul Menard, whose father has a long history of IndyCar ownership, stunned and surprised the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crowd by stretching a fuel run and holding off Gordon to win the Brickyard 400. Marcos Ambrose, the Australian road-course ace turned Sprint Cup driver, finally earned his first victory on NASCAR's major circuit, that on the twisty layout at Watkins Glen. Much of 2011 was about spreading the wealth, as 18 different drivers would visit Victory Lane, the most since 2002 and one short of a record.

Not everything about the year was unpredictable, though. Johnson's victory at the fall Kansas race made him the only driver to win a race in every Chase since the system was implemented prior to the 2004 campaign. Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed serious improvement, finishing seventh in final points after two years in the 20s, but still has a winless skid that now stretches 129 races. And when it came time to decide the championship, form seemed to return. The most consistent driver all season, Edwards would lead the points for 21 weeks and go on to assert himself as the favorite down the stretch. But then came Stewart, a driver who seemed out of it time and time again, who at one point said he didn't deserve a Chase spot, who midway though the playoff fired his crew chief effective at the end of the year. All of that should have stopped him. None of it did.

Stewart drove during this Chase with a purpose, seeming to will the car around the track. He won at Chicagoland and Loudon. He stumbled, but regrouped by winning at Martinsville, and sent the points leader Edwards a clear message: You aren't going to sleep the rest of the way. He backed up the talk by winning at Texas. Then, trailing by three points entering the finale at Homestead, Stewart won the title the only way he could -- by winning the race, knotting Edwards in points and claiming the championship in a tiebreaker, with his five race victories trumping Edwards' one. It was a stunning finish to a stunning season, one NASCAR called its most competitive ever, and the surprises continued right down to the last press conference of the year when Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb confirmed that yes, he was indeed out of a job.

Who would have thought it?

Notes-n-Nuggets | Year in Review

• There were 36 races won by 18 different drivers on 23 different tracks in 20 different states.
• There were 10,650 laps raced for 14,236.74 miles.
First-time winners
• Five first-time winners in 2011 ties the record for the most (2002, 2001) in the 36 race era.
• First-time winners won in three marquee races: Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400.
Season of parity
• Eighty-eight lead changes at Talladega in May tied the record for most set there in 2010.
• A .002 margin of victory at Talladega in May tied Darlington (2003) for the closest finish in history.
• Eight drivers ended a winless streak of 32 races or longer; four of those were 60 races or more.
• Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were tied at 2403 points; Stewart wins the tie breaker by scoring five wins compared to Edwards' one.
Strategy wins races
• Daytona -- Trevor Bayne went the last 48 laps on a tank of fuel.
• Las Vegas -- Carl Edwards takes two tires on Lap 241 pit stop while Tony Stewart, who was leading prior to the green flag, stop took four tires. Edwards inherits the lead and wins.
• Darlington -- Regan Smith, running seventh, stays out on Lap 359 while the top six drivers pit and inherits the lead. Smith holds off Carl Edwards through a G-W-C finish to get his first Cup win.
• Dover -- Matt Kenseth takes two tires on Lap 363 and restarts second on the Lap 367 restart; he was running fourth before the caution and passed Mark Martin on Lap 369, who stayed out during the pit cycle.
• Charlotte -- Kevin Harvick last pits on Lap 345 and stretches his fuel the last 55 laps to get the win.
• Kansas -- Brad Keselowski pits only five times while remaining drivers pit at least six times.
• Indianapolis -- Paul Menard wins a fuel mileage race after last pitting on Lap 125.
• Pocono -- Brad Keselowski pits on Lap 121, the rain comes on Lap 124 and the caution comes out.
• Bristol -- Brad Keselowski uses the lack of pit loops on pit road to consistently gain positions on pit road.
• Chicagoland -- Tony Stewart last pits on Lap 214 to win the fuel mileage race.
• New Hampshire -- Tony Stewart takes the lead on Lap 299 as Clint Bowyer runs out of fuel; Stewart last pits on Lap 228 and went the final 72 laps to take the checkers.
• Dover -- Steve Addington changes his mind on taking four tires once he saw Jimmie Johnson take just two on Lap 353; Kurt Busch passes Johnson on the restart after starting second.
• Martinsville -- Stewart pits and takes two tires on the Lap 459 stop and restarts third (was running ninth before the stop) and passes Jimmie Johnson for the win with three laps to go.
• Trevor Bayne becomes the youngest Daytona 500 winner and the seventh driver to win his first Cup race in the 500. An undisclosed illness then takes him out of competition from April 24th through June 4th.
• Kentucky is added to the Cup Series schedule and traffic conditions forced fans to wait for hours to see the event. Some were turned away due to a lack of adequate parking.
• Pack drafting on restrictor-plate tracks is replaced by tandem racing leading to increased lead changes but mixed reactions from fans and drivers.
• Qualifying records were set at five tracks: Phoenix, Las Vegas, Darlington, New Hampshire, Watkins Glen.
• Remnants from Tropical Storm Lee postpones scheduled Atlanta race from Sunday to Tuesday; only two races since 1978 were held on Tuesday (Atlanta in 2011 and Michigan in 2007).
Team performance
• Richard Childress Racing won its 100th race at Talladega, RCR is the fifth organization to reach 100 wins.
• Dover was the fifth Penske Racing win this season, the most in a season since 2003 (8).
• JGR led all teams with six engine DNFs (seven ECR failures in 2011: RCR-4, EGR-3).
• Jeff Gordon's engine DNF at Kansas was just the second in 2011 for Hendrick Motorsports.
• JGR drivers went to the rear of the field eight times in 2011 due to engine changes.
• Teammates started 1-2 in 10 races in 2011; teammates finished 1-2 in five races in 2011.
• Red Bull Racing's Phoenix win was its first since 2009 (Brian Vickers at Michigan).
• HMS' 199 wins is second all-time to Petty Enterprises' 268.

Photo gallery -- Take a look back at the 2011 Cup Series season below:

More: Cup Series News Archive | Opinions | Features | Official Releases