The following is a look back at some of the standout performers and memorable races, as selected from discussions with the national series directors, competition department and NASCAR IMC managers.
Top Driver: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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- NASCAR MEDIA