“You come at the king, you best not miss.” – Omar Little, The Wire.
From the 2007 season – Jimmie Johnson’s first as a defending champion – through 2010, exactly 100 drivers started at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. All took aim at Johnson’s throne. All missed.
A shocking victor claimed NASCAR’s most famous race to open the 2011 season, as Trevor Bayne, 20, became the youngest driver to ever win the Daytona 500.
Bayne’s storybook win signaled a season of change and surprise, none more remarkable than this…
Johnson’s five-year reign as king ended. Somebody didn’t miss. That somebody was Tony Stewart.
Stewart’s record-breaking, five-win playoff run in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was just one of the many outstanding performances that took place during the recently completed 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. The following is a look back at some of those standout performers and memorable races, as selected from discussions with the national series directors, competition department and NASCAR IMC managers.
Tony Stewart – Some may argue Stewart was NOT the top driver of 2011 – at least not all of it. He failed to win a single race in the 26-race regular season, thereby starting the Chase as the ninth seed. But on the big stage, Stewart shined – and that’s why he gets the nod. Over the final 10 races, Stewart won a Chase-record five races – including the historic “walk-off win” at Homestead-Miami Speedway that won him a championship. With the victory, Stewart became A) the ninth driver with three or more championships; B) the first champion to win the finale since 1998; and C) the first driver-owner to win the title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Even after the winless regular season, Stewart’s five victories in 2011 were a series-high. Now, one hole remains in Stewart’s career: a Daytona 500 victory. He’ll get his chance to fill it soon enough – on Feb. 26 (FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
Carl Edwards (Honorable Mention) – Edwards captured just one victory in 2011 – and that was the reason he lost a tie-breaker that cost him the championship to Stewart. Still, 2011 was an impressive and productive season for Edwards. He held the points lead after 21 of 36 points races, by far the longest stretch of any driver this season. By comparison, Kyle Busch was second, leading the points for seven weeks in 2011. Edwards adds two other accolades to his impressive season. He won his first NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (famously tearing up the front of his Ford while celebrating), and set a Chase record of his own. Edwards’ average finish in the 10-race Chase was 4.9, the lowest ever in the Chase’s eight-year history. The previous best was Jimmie Johnson’s 5.0 in 2007.
Comeback Driver of the Year
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Welcome back to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and championship contention. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the ninth consecutive season, Earnhardt enjoyed a rebirth of sorts under new crew chief Steve Letarte. With a fresh slate in 2011, Earnhardt piled up four top fives and 12 top 10s, his highest figures since his first season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He also returned to the Chase for the first time in three years, finishing the season seventh in points. That points finish was his best since 2006, when he finished fifth. Despite a winless drought that stretched to 129 starts, Earnhardt flirted with Victory Lane a couple of times in 2011. At Martinsville Speedway, he held the lead with four laps remaining, but lost it to a charging Kevin Harvick. At the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he led on the final lap only to run out of gas – and was passed by Harvick yet again.
Kasey Kahne (Honorable Mention) – Despite missing the Chase for the second consecutive season, Kasey Kahne lit up the back end of the schedule, finishing in the top 10 in seven of the final eight races. His 368 points scored in the Chase trailed only Stewart and Edwards, and his victory at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the season snapped an 81-race winless drought. Kahne’s late-season surge provided booming optimism for next season, when he and crew chief Kenny Francis join powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.
Stewart-Haas Racing – That didn’t take long. Stewart-Haas Racing needed just three years to win their first championship, as Stewart became the first driver-owner to win the title since 1992. SHR racked up six wins in 2011, tied for most on the season. Five of those belonged to Stewart. Ryan Newman nabbed the other in the most dominant effort by a team this season. At New Hampshire in July, Newman and Stewart started 1-2, and finished 1-2 – the first time since 1957 that a team started and finished 1-2 with the same drivers starting and finishing in the same order.
Richard Childress Racing (Honorable Mention) – This was a tough one, as Roush Fenway Racing made a big play for inclusion into this category. But again, RFR lost the tiebreak to victories. Richard Childress Racing nabbed six victories in 2011. Roush Fenway had five.
But the win total alone isn’t everything. RCR captured glory in one of NASCAR’s “crown jewels,” with Paul Menard claiming his first career win in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During the Chase, Clint Bowyer – who moves to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 – collected RCR’s milestone 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, in the Talladega Superspeedway Chase race. Kevin Harvick, RCR’s wins leader with four, finished third in the points for the second consecutive season.
Top Breakthrough Performer
Brad Keselowski – Don’t be surprised if more drivers attempt Keselowski’s patented “broken ankle-to-victory” strategy. During a test session at Road Atlanta in early August, Keselowski broke his left ankle, leaving his availability for the upcoming event at Pocono Raceway in question. He did race. And won. He did the same a few weeks later at Bristol. His three victories after race No. 26 were enough to land him the No. 1 Wild Card spot in the Chase. After a solid Chase that included four top-five finishes, he finished the season fifth in points.
Regan Smith (Honorable Mention) – Coming into 2011, here were Regan Smith’s career statistics: zero wins, zero top fives and zero top 10s. Any type of success whatsoever would land him a “Breakthrough Performer” nod. Instead, he built a career-year that included a victory in one of NASCAR’s most historic races – the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. To that feat, he added a third-place finish on another grand stage – the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. In all, Smith had one win, two top fives and five top 10s.
Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway – If this race were smack in the middle of the season, it still would get consideration for “Top Race” – thanks to record-breaking numbers in leaders (15) and lead changes (26). But the implications of this race – and the clutch performances of those with everything to win and lose – made this an instant classic.
Championship clinch scenarios going in were simple: If Carl Edwards wins, he’s the champion. If Tony Stewart wins, he’s the champion. Edwards shrugged off any pressure as a first championship neared, leading a race-high 119 laps.
But this was Stewart’s show. With some early pit road magic to repair a grapefruit-sized hole in his grill, Stewart worked his way back to the front with daring four-wide passes. NASCAR’s Loop Data counted a total of 118 green flag passes for Stewart, who led the final 36 laps en route to the “walk-off win” and his third career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Stewart and Edwards finished 1-2 at Homestead, leaving the 2011 season in a points tie. Stewart won the tiebreaker with five wins to Edwards’ one.
Aaron’s 499, Talladega Superspeedway (Honorable Mention) – Talladega’s April spring race matched two major NASCAR records – that of lead changes and margin of victory.
There were 88 lead changes, which matched the record previously set in 2010, also in Talladega’s spring race. With a margin of victory of .002 seconds, the race tied the closest MOV since the inception of electronic scoring in 1993. The record was previously set at Darlingon Raceway in 2003, when Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch to the finish line.
In this one, Jimmie Johnson – with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind him – barely beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line. It was Johnson’s first victory of the season. His next wouldn’t come until October at Kansas.