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Top 5: No returns on these gifts

December 24, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Eight drivers highlight top-five gifts from the Cup Series in 2011

The Christmas season is a time for giving and as 2011 draws to a close NASCAR fans -- particularly those of the Sprint Cup Series -- should feel blessed to have received numerous gifts related to racing, this season.

For a variety of reasons, on Christmas Eve these are five offerings that fans should cherish when they either look back on the 2011 racing season or peer ahead to 2012.

Kurt and Kyle Busch

Face it, there's no question that the brothers from Las Vegas, Nev., with their unmitigated emotion and unbridled passion for the sport -- and all-consuming need to excel in it -- bring a dimension to NASCAR racing that would be sadly missed if it wasn't present.

The Busch brothers can sometimes be difficult to deal with, sure. That's a burden that many professional athletes present and that many people who have to either work with them or around them -- and even to share in their sport as a fan -- have to bear, if they choose to.

But the bottom line is; polarizing personalities aren't a bad thing to have in sports. You have to have heroes and villains to make the games more interesting -- yes, to invoke more passion and emotion in the fan base itself.

If you look back at the lengths of their careers, the Busch brothers have learned lessons, they continue to apply them and they've improved -- all the while continuing to be intensely competitive and extremely passionate about their sport. And that's a good thing.

If you honestly think about how comparatively bland the NASCAR environment would be without such intriguing personalities, you can certainly appreciate what this gift brings to the sport.

2011 Highlights: Kurt Busch | Kyle Busch

Brad Keselowski

Refreshing honesty is a gift, and Brad Keselowski provided that to fans of the Cup and Nationwide series in multiple ways in 2011.

Whether it was at his weekly media briefings at the various race tracks, particularly after he became a player for the 2011 Cup Series championship; almost daily on his @Keselowski Twitter feed, through his various promotions and appearances with Penske Racing sponsor Miller Lite, or after one of his 13 race or pole wins throughout 2011, Keselowski almost without fail was a breath of fresh air.

Keselowski's take on life and racing was most refreshing in the aftermath of his brutal accident in early August at a test session at the Road Atlanta road course. Keselowski never questioned his desire to compete, his ability to compete or his intent to succeed and -- when he did just that by not only winning races but qualifying for his first Chase -- it was inspiring.

And Keselowski proved his commitment to the truth when he wouldn't completely back-off his contentions and fully owned the responsibility for his comments when NASCAR issued him a hefty "secret fine" for criticizing the sanctioning body's move to electronic fuel injection in 2012.

At times, people might not want to hear the truth, even if it might be the best thing for them, and certainly to maintain a firm grip on reality. With Keselowski, the whole truth is usually what you get, so if you appreciate his perspective, enjoy the gift.

2011 Highlights: Brad Keselowski

Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson

With experience eventually comes respect, though when it comes to NASCAR veterans Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, their consummate class and professionalism -- which hasn't happened overnight -- is a gift not only this season but for years, that fans should treasure.

Edwards was a pillar this season and, after losing a title that he tied for, a shining example not only to aspiring sports champions but to anyone who wishes to succeed in life -- that a supportive demeanor, a positive attitude, an empathetic nature and compassion can carry you a long way.

Gordon, in a season that resulted in him rejuvenating a Sprint Cup career that, truth be told, hadn't exactly slipped very far, reinforced his reputation as a stand-up, straight-shooting professional who's willing to address virtually any subject under any circumstances, no matter what his day on the race track has consisted of.

Johnson, throughout his unprecedented streak of five consecutive Cup Series championships, has set a standard for exemplary behavior. But as that even, eminently professional demeanor continued in the face of the extreme -- even if it was inevitable -- disappointment of having his championship streak end, Johnson brought his level of respect inside and out of the industry to a new level.

The lesson of how each day can end on a better note depending on how well you navigate it is a lesson provided by this NASCAR trio that has gifted anyone who's taken the time to appreciate it.

2011 Highlights: Carl Edwards | Jeff Gordon | Jimmie Johnson

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart, through the years has laid plenty of gifts on fans with multiple race wins, championships and a variety of alternately fierce and flowery incidents. But maybe his best gift yet was the iron-willed focus he displayed in 2011 to capture his third Cup championship.

Stewart was a typical treasure throughout the season, as he picked at his team's inability to consistently contend for wins, or even a competitive position in the Chase field.

But in his own way, Stewart was focused on what he and his organization needed to do to get into contention for that championship. And in the end, in conjunction with crew chief Darian Grubb, Stewart was able to turn all the keys he needed to succeed.

Stewart would've been the first one to admit that winning four of the first nine races in the Chase -- after going winless in the 26 races leading up to the championship playoff -- would've been unlikely.

But there's also no question that the owner/driver's unerring focus, a true gift that he's repeatedly used with great success, resulted in probably the best championship finale in the Chase's eight-year history.

2011 Highlights: Tony Stewart

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth's appreciation for having a sly sense of humor is a gift that, thankfully, more people are learning to appreciate with each successive year.

Whether it was exchanging toilet humor in relation to one of his Roush Fenway Racing sponsors, swapping barbs at any of his media or fan availabilities or revealing in his dry way, after his wife, Katie, broke her shoulder blade in a race-car testing accident last fall, that he'd learned "to put a bra on someone," Kenseth remained a priceless gem in the Cup garage.

While Edwards, Gordon and Johnson are relatively new parents, Kenseth has recently become father to two daughters, joining his teenage son in his brood of children that have continued to shape not only Kenseth's, but all four of the drivers' views.

Unfortunately for Kenseth, circumstances that he was in the middle of creating in the stretch run of the season knocked him out of contention for the championship. But Kenseth's balanced take on things, while in that case certainly not funny, was made more interesting through his unique perspective.

The neatest thing for Kenseth, who without question is as intense a competitor as anyone else in the Sprint Cup garage, and those around him is he manages to maintain his sense of humor no matter the circumstances, which is maybe the best gift of all.

2011 Highlights: Matt Kenseth

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.