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Top five races of 2011: Cup Series season one for the ages

December 25, 2011, Joe Menzer,

From young guns to seasoned veterans, drivers gave us a season to remember

In a year bookended by a storybook start and a duel for the ages at the finish, with plenty of memorable action in between, five races stood out as the best of 2011.

1. Daytona 500, Feb. 20, Daytona International Speedway

Making his first-ever Daytona 500 start, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne shocked the racing world and became the youngest winner ever of NASCAR's biggest event. He did so by holding off Carl Edwards to earn the venerable Wood Brothers Racing team its fifth Daytona 500 victory, but its first since NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee David Pearson's win in 1976.

"Are you kidding me? Am I dreaming? ... I don't even know where to go,' a stunned Bayne exclaimed to his team over the radio as he crossed the finish line and prepared to find his way to Victory Lane in the Wood Brothers' iconic No. 21 Ford -- which had a retro paint scheme to make it look just as it did when Pearson once drove it.

Bayne's improbable triumph topped a day in which the race set Daytona 500 records for caution flags (16) and lead changes (74 among 22 drivers). It was an instant classic that proved to be the best race in a season filled with fine ones.

"If I tried to put this into words, I wouldn't be doing it justice," Bayne said afterward.

Story: 'What an entrance' | Video: Race Rewind | Photo Gallery | Lap-by-Lap | Results

Watch all the race highlights from the Daytona 500 below:

2. Ford 400, Nov. 20, Homestead-Miami Speedway

All Tony Stewart had to do was win. Again.

So for the fifth time in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, that's exactly what he did. It wasn't just that he won to capture his third Cup championship; it was the way he drove to the victory.

First he had to run down Carl Edwards, his challenger for the title. Edwards led all but a handful for the race's first 112 laps and ended up leading a total of six times for a race-high 119 laps overall.

In doing so, Stewart also had to overcome getting a hole punched in the grille of his No. 14 Chevrolet early in the race, more damage to his front end later, and a pair of costly pit-road mistakes. All the while, he kept charging relentlessly toward the front.

"The storyline was pretty amazing," Stewart said. "You've got a guy who goes out and is leading in the point standings. He qualifies on the pole and he's leading the first part of the race. The guy who's the underdog and is three points behind [coming into the race] is having to jump hurdles and through hoops to salvage their day."

Stewart ultimately won the season finale and the 2011 championship, while Edwards finished a strong second in both. But together, they won the admiration of all who watched and even of those who participated in it with them.

"I'm sure there will be people who will say that this was fake, this was set up, because it's just so unbelievable. I mean, it was like a movie," Edwards said.

Story: 'Wins take it all' | Video: Race Rewind | Photo Gallery | Lap-by-Lap | Results

Watch all the race highlights from the Ford 400 below:

3. AAA Texas 500, Nov. 6, Texas Motor Speedway

Stewart set the table for the fantastic finish at Homestead by winning another duel with Edwards two weeks earlier in Texas, where the pair of championship contenders also finished one-two in the race.

That concluded a weekend in which the two drivers and their cars were bunched together on practice time sheets, in qualifying and throughout the-mile, 334-lap event.

"It was a pretty awesome race, yes," Edwards said. "The coolest thing would be if this thing could come down to the last lap at Homestead, battling door-to-door. That would be unreal."

Stewart said the battle with Edwards was as it should have been, toe-to-toe and door-to-door.

"This was a good race," Stewart said. "We never really got that far away from each other. At the end, it was down to the two of us.

"If you're [NASCAR chairman and CEO] Brian France right now, I would say he's giddy. If not, he should be, because this is the perfect scenario. It's the perfect storm, so to speak, going into these last two weeks."

Story: 'Decision: Stewart' | Video: Race Rewind | Photo Gallery | Lap-by-Lap | Results

Watch all the race highlights from the AAA Texas 500 below:

4. Southern 500, May 7, Darlington Raceway

In a season marked by five first-time winners, none stood out more than Regan Smith's win at Darlington, where he held off -- you got it, Edwards once again -- to earn the checkered flag.

Smith started the race in 23rd and was still outside the top 10 with 70 laps to go. But he stayed out on old tires during a caution nine laps from the end to take the lead and held off Edwards, who was on fresher tires, during a green-white-checkered finish to win for the first time in 105 career starts on arguably NASCAR's toughest track..

"I'm not supposed to win this race. I've never even had a top-five. I guess in this series, it just shows anyone can win," said Smith, whose previous best in 2011 had been a seventh-place finish at Daytona.

While the 27-year-old Smith was celebrating and scoring one for the little guys -- his Furniture Row Racing operation is a single-car deal located in Denver, Colo. -- tempers erupted after Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer were involved in the accident that set up the finish. What followed threatened to overshadow Smith's triumph. After the race, Harvick tracked down Busch's car, stopped in front of Busch on pit road, then got out of his car and attempted to punch or grab Busch through his driver's side window. Busch then slammed into Harvick's driverless car, sending it crashing in the inside wall and forcing nearby crewmen to scatter.

The crews from both teams subsequently scuffled with each other in the garage area. Both drivers were summoned to the NASCAR hauler after the race and later each was fined $25,000 and placed on four weeks' probation.

Story: 'Emotions high' | Video: Race Rewind | Photo Gallery | Lap-by-Lap | Results

Watch all the race highlights from the Southern 500 below:

5. Aaron's 499, April 17, Talladega Superspeedway

With Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushing him, five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson timed it perfectly coming through the tri-oval for the final time at Talladega Superspeedway to take the checkered flag in the Aaron's 499.

In doing so, Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet edged Clint Bowyer's No. 33 Chevy by a mere mere 0.002 seconds in a virtual drag race to the finish. The margin of victory of .002 seconds tied a 2003 Darlington race for closest margin of victory since electronic scoring had been introduced, and the 88 lead changes tied the all-time series record for any race.

Jeff Gordon, also of Hendrick Motorsports, finished third and Earnhardt ended up settling for fourth. But it was Earnhardt whom Johnson sought out afterward, giving him the checkered flag after pulling his car up next to Earnhardt's.

"Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too," Johnson insisted to the reluctant Earnhardt.

"No, I don't want the trophy," Earnhardt finally replied. "I'll take the flag, though."

It was a great verbal exchange between the two that capped one of the season's best races, underscoring the importance of drivers finding someone they trusted to work with in the restrictor-plate events.

Story: 'By an inch' | Video: Race Rewind | Photo Gallery | Lap-by-Lap | Results

Watch all the race highlights from the Aaron's 499 below: