Hot/Not: Sifting through 2011′s NASCAR highs and lows

"Am I dreaming? Is this real?" screamed then-nobody Trevor Bayne after stunning the racing world last February with his win in the season-opening Daytona 500. Little did we know, we'd be thinking the same thing as the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season culminated in a closest-ever battle for the points championship a week and a half ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In all, NASCAR waved checkered flags 95 times over points-paying national series races this season — leaving plenty of hits and misses to remember from the season that was. Here's a look back at what made the 2011 NASCAR season tick:

HOT: Tony Stewart won five races in the Chase and Carl Edwards had a better average finish than anyone, ever. And then? Stewart wins the Sprint Cup title on a walk-off win. Need we say more?

NEUTRAL: New pavement at Daytona, the bane of any race track's existence, allowed drivers to add a new trick to the restrictor plate handbook this year in the form of two-car tandem drafting.

It was a novelty during the Daytona 500, still new for Talladega in April and finally started to lose sizable luster when NASCAR returned to Daytona in July. The racing was different, yes, but NASCAR's sizable steps to remove tandem drafting should be bold — and effective.

HOT: What would you say the best fight to the finish line this season was? My top-three are simple: Stewart-Edwards at Homestead, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta and Gordon and Kyle Busch at Phoenix.

Honorable mention goes to Kevin Harvick versus Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville in the spring.

NOT: The incessant complaints about the high number of fuel-mileage races this season may top my list of gripes. Should we really fault 1) NASCAR for not throwing as many perceived phantom cautions, 2) drivers who learned to manage their fuel the greatest and 3) teams who technically were the fastest to the finish line? {ysp:more}

No. I'll take the uncontrived finishes with plenty of dramatic potential.

HOT: NASCAR's far-reaching embrace of social media was a major positive for this season. The best? I'll hand that award to NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell (@odsteve), vice president of racing operations, who provided fans with direct information, insider views, trivia and more.

NASCAR has long lacked transparency in how they operate, but O'Donnell (and others) have changed that, 140 characters at a time.

NOT: What happened to Joe Gibbs Racing this year? Denny Hamlin fell from the face of the Sprint Cup world sometime around the middle of September, while Kyle Busch floundered midway through the Chase before his Texas meltdown.

Also: did Joey Logano really only reel in six top 10s in the Cup series? Yikes.

HOT: Once considered by racing purists with scorn, NASCAR racing on road courses continued it's rapid ascent this year as some of the most enjoyable left-and-right action available in the U.S. Scenic, action-packed and dripping with strategy — it's borderline idiocy that the Sprint Cup Series only flips the steering wheel right twice a year.

NOT: NASCAR officially has their own version of the present-day San Diego Chargers in Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Every so often, they bubble toward the top with notable names and inclinations of consistent success, before falling back to mediocrity.

A year removed from Jamie McMurray's keystone wins at Daytona and Indianapolis, both he and Juan Pablo Montoya were outside the top 20 in points. What goes up for that team seems to always come back down.

NEUTRAL: The simplicity and ease of NASCAR's new point structure was a major positive. The artificially-close gaps should help keep future interest, as well.

However, NASCAR does need to make a slight adjustment to make winning count a bit more. If nothing else, picking up several wins should go a long way in erasing a single bad finish.

HOT: We saw the ignition of a long and successful career amidst the most unlikely of odds. With Kurt Busch playing top dog at Penske Racing, seeing Brad Keselowski score three wins — while badly hurt for one, nonetheless — and a fifth-place finish in the final standings was the biggest eye-opener of 2011.

NOT: Consider this personal resentment due to local love, but I'm very sad that the 2012 NASCAR calendars won't include the once-named Indianapolis Raceway Park. There's no doubt about it: tracks like Indy's half-mile should have been NASCAR's cookie cutter template in the late 1990s.

It's sad to see another go.

FINAL: There's no doubt that 2011 did a lot of good for NASCAR's brand. They made reasonable steps to better accommodate fan reaction, new and old contenders surfaced, real dramas unfolded and — for the first time in a long time — young drivers in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series seemed to grab more attention.

And, my goodness, was the finale at Homestead one to write home to mama about, or what? The countdown to Daytona is moving swiftly, and 2012 will be here before you know it.

I don't know about you, but I'm already excited for it.

Agree with my ramblings? Did I miss something? Hate my guts? The comment section is all yours.