Tony Stewart’s championship-clinching victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway has been voted the Top Moment of 2011. Members of NASCARMedia.com voted in the week-long poll, casting ballots for the top-10 moments from the just-completed NASCAR season.
1-Tony Stewart’s Homestead-Miami Clincher
Stewart trailed Carl Edwards by three points entering the 10th and final race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. Both drivers had predicted the championship wouldn’t be decided until the final lap, and they were right. Edwards, who started on the pole, led the most laps while Stewart yo-yoed through the field after fixing damage to the front of his Chevrolet. Amazingly, Stewart took the lead with 36 laps remaining. Edwards, in second place, stayed in full-out pursuit mode until the checkered flag waved, but finished 1.306 seconds behind Stewart. Both drivers scored 2,403 points with the tiebreaker – five wins to one – falling in Stewart’s favor.
2-Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 Win
Winning The Great American Race is a career achievement no matter how many races or championships are won elsewhere. Example: Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt needed 20 starts to win his Daytona 500 at age 46. All of which made Bayne’s victory both surprising and historic. Bayne, at age 20 years and one day, was making just his second NASCAR Sprint Cup start, although his team – the legendary Wood Brothers – had won the Daytona 500 on four previous occasions. Bayne, who started 32nd and led only the final six laps as a record 74 lead changes were recorded became the youngest Daytona 500 winner and just the seventh to make the race his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. The win was Ford’s 600th and 98th for the Wood Brothers.
3-Brad Keselowski’s Wreckers-to-Checkers Win at Pocono
Playing hurt is the measure of athletic success, as Brad Keselowski won August’s Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono Raceway just days after breaking his left ankle in a road course testing accident. Few might have projected a healthy Keselowski as a Pocono favorite. He’d won at Kansas Speedway earlier in the summer, but came to Pennsylvania ranked 21st in points. The race turned out to be a coming-out party for the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, who followed the performance with three more top-three finishes capped by a Bristol victory, a Chase wild card berth and a fifth place finish in final NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
4-Jeff Gordon’s 85th NASCAR Sprint Cup Win
Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon fell short in his title bid, but the 2011 season was his first with multiple victories since 2007. He broke a 66-race winless streak at Phoenix International Raceway in February, added another win at Pocono Raceway in June and scored a historic 85th career victory in a weather-delayed AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in September. Atlanta’s victory gave Gordon sole possession of third among all NASCAR Sprint Cup winners, breaking a tie with NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bobby Allison and soon-to-be-inducted Darrell Waltrip.
5-Regan Smith’s Southern 500 Win
What Trevor Bayne began in February, Regan Smith continued in May. Smith entered Darlington Raceway’s SHOWTIME Southern 500 with a lean resume to say the least: no wins, top fives or top 10s in 104 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts. Smith, then 27, became the upset winner of NASCAR’s oldest "crown jewel." He led just the final 11 laps and held off Carl Edwards by 0.196 seconds to give Furniture Row Racing – a team headquartered in Colorado – its first series victory.
6-Jimmie Johnson’s Aaron’s 499 Win at Talladega
At the time, Jimmie Johnson’s final-lap victory – with an assist by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. – appeared to be an early harbinger of a sixth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Johnson’s second Talladega Superspeedway win – and 54th overall – boosted him from fourth to second in the point standings. The race matched records for lead changes (88) and margin of victory under electronic scoring (0.002 seconds).
7-Paul Menard Holds Off Jeff Gordon to Win Brickyard 400
Surprise winners in 2011, take three. For much of its 19 years, Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Brickyard 400 had been won by the greatest names in NASCAR: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, bill Elliott – champions all. No first-time winners in the bunch – until this July. Midwesterner Paul Menard wound up kissing the start-finish line bricks after prevailing in a torrid battle with four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon. Menard joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and SHOWTIME Southern 500 winner Regan Smith to score a first victory on the schedule’s largest stages.
8-Austin Dillon Becomes Youngest NASCAR Camping World Truck Champion
Though a number of young drivers have used their experience in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as a springboard to NASCAR Sprint Cup success – think Carl Edwards, among others – veteran drivers, for the most part, have had a stranglehold on its championships. Only Travis Kvapil (age 27 in 2003) was younger than 30 in the series’ first 16 seasons. All that changed in 2011 as third-generation driver Austin Dillon, 21, became the youngest to win an NCWTS title. Dillon, a two-time winner, finished six points ahead of NASCAR national series veteran Johnny Sauter. Dillon, Richard Childress’ grandson, returned a title to RCR that Mike Skinner won in the series’ 1995 inaugural season.
9-Danica Patrick Posts Best Finish in NASCAR by a Female Driver
All agreed that Danica Patrick’s part-time NASCAR career was on the upswing in its second season. Patrick proved that with an exclamation point on March 5 with a solid, fourth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The performance was record-setting: Patrick became not only the highest-finishing female driver in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race but also in any NASCAR national series event. Patrick’s feat broke a record from NASCAR’s earliest years – Sara Christian’s fifth-place finish in a NASCAR Sprint Cup (then Strictly Stock) race on Oct. 2, 1949 at Heidelberg, Pa.
Two NASCAR national series champions gave media and fans yet another reason to keep an eye on the newcomers. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose uneven performance nearly cost him his job with Roush Fenway Racing in 2010, recovered to claim NASCAR Nationwide Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Roush’s faith was rewarded as Stenhouse won twice en route to the 2011 championship. Austin Dillon’s rookie of the year run in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wasn’t quite so dramatic but like Stenhouse, he "graduated" to the champion’s chair. The season marked the first time that both Nationwide and truck rookies became champions in their sophomore years.