The 2011 Sprint Cup season started and ended with total shockers, which was entirely appropriate considering nothing went according to the script in the eight months in between.
Among the surprises:
• Four of the year's biggest races were won by Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), David Ragan (Coke 400) and Paul Menard (Brickyard 400), who had a combined zero Cup victories going into the season.
• Brad Keselowski won three races, finished fifth in the standings and became the most outspoken driver in the garage – all after breaking his ankle.
• Jeff Burton didn't record a top-10 finish until August.
• Red Bull said see ya later to NASCAR.
• Danica Patrick's announcement that she'll compete in NASCAR full time in 2012 wasn't a surprise, but the fact that she'll enter 10 Cup races was.
• Denny Hamlin couldn't back up what he did in 2010.
Oh, and Jimmie Johnson didn't win the championship for the first time since 2006, while the guy who did turned out to be the biggest surprise of them all.
And while Dan Wheldon's death doesn't fall within the world of NASCAR, it did rock the world of motorsports. He will be missed.
Here are the top five NASCAR stories of 2011:
In January, NASCAR unveiled a new 43-to-1 points system to replace the 180-to-34 system used since the mid-1970s. Part of the new system also included two wild-card berths for the Chase, given to the drivers with the most wins not in the top 10. Brian France said the new system would be simpler (it is) and reward winning more (it does not). Ultimately, the new system did generate a modicum of drama around the wild-card spots as the regular season wound down. And while it did help create the closest points battle in the history of the sport, in the end NASCAR narrowly avoided a potential firestorm. Had Carl Edwards earned just one more point in the Chase, he would have been the champion instead of Tony Stewart, winner of five Chase races, and the inherent flaw in the points system – that it doesn't reward winning enough – would have been on full display.
For months, the hottest topic in the Cup garage revolved around the future of Carl Edwards, possibly the most marketable driver in the sport not named Dale Earnhardt Jr. With his contract with Roush Fenway Racing up at the end of the season, Edwards spent a good portion of 2011 fielding offers for his services. The sweepstakes eventually got whittled down to two teams: Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing.
In July, rumors swirled that JGR had the inside track, with Edwards potentially taking sponsor Aflac with him to the No. 20. But Jack Roush wasn't going down without a fight. Knowing how important Edwards was to his organization, as well as car manufacturer Ford, Roush put on a full-court press, opening his books, unveiling future plans – essentially laying it all on the table in a dramatic effort to keep his top dog in house. Ultimately Edwards, serving as his own agent, decided to stay put, saying "as an organization, Roush Fenway provides the resources I need to win – and as a driver, that's the most important thing."
3. Kyle Busch parked (and fined and issued a speeding ticket and punched)
Kyle Busch spent 2011 one-upping himself, and not in a good way. He got into an on-track feud with Kevin Harvick at Darlington in early May, then three weeks later got busted going 128 mph in a 45-mph zone. Ten days after the speeding ticket, he took a Richard Childress punch to the face. If only this had been the end of his troubles … but it wasn't. In November, Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck race at Texas. NASCAR parked him for the rest of that race, then parked him for the remainder of the weekend – including that Sunday's AAA Texas 500, making Busch the first driver to be parked for a Cup race since Robby Gordon in 2007.
As the calendar flipped through November, the odds of a Busch losing his ride in 2011 weren't long. But who would've bet on it being Kurt and not Kyle? Capping off what was a tumultuous (to say the least) year for the Busch family, Kurt Busch agreed to part ways with Penske Racing in December. While the two sides stressed that their divorce was mutual, Busch and his attitude proved to be his own ouster. Team owner Roger Penske, along with sponsor Shell Oil Company, had simply grown tired of Busch's antics – the final straw coming in the season finale, when he berated a reporter.
Busch said he never felt he fit in during his six-year stint with the buttoned-up Penske, and that he wanted to put "the fun" back in racing. Free of his Penske shackles, the 2004 Cup champion headed to the unemployment line, where he wound up signing with James Finch's Phoenix Racing.
In August, Tony Stewart was in the midst of a winless, frustration-filled, crew chief-firing, wait-till-next-year season. Three months later, he was the 2011 Sprint Cup champion. Not only that, but he was the man who ended Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign. And none of this is why the word "epic" is so fitting in describing Stewart's run to a third career title.
• Five wins in 10 races, a feat that may never be matched – that was epic.
• Beating Carl Edwards, who posted the best average finish (4.9) in the history of the Chase – again, epic.
• Doing it in head-to-head fashion, finishing nose to tail with Edwards in each of the final three races – totally epic.
• Having a piece of debris poke a hole in your grille not even five laps into the season finale, pushing you all the way to the back of the pack, then rallying to win the race – the definition of epic.
• Holding off the guy you had to hold off for 35 laps in order to win the championship – E-P-I-C.
In 2011, NASCAR got its Game 7 moment, and then some, in a finish that seems almost impossible to top.
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