NASCAR Highlights of 2011
NASCAR finally got the Chase it has always wanted; one decided at the finish line of the final race of the season. Tony Stewart captured his fifth victory in 10 Chase races, defeating points leader Carl Edwards by 1.306 seconds in the Ford 400 at Homestead. Even with the win, Stewart and Edwards finished in a points tie. Stewart won his third Sprint Cup title based on tie-breaker -- five wins over the season (all during the Chase) to Edwards' one. It was the first time in history the points race ended in a tie and a tie-breaker decided the championship.
The most impressive championship streak in NASCAR history came to an end when Johnson faltered in this year's Chase, ending his Cup championship streak at five. The previous record was three straight by Cale Yarborough from 1976 to '78. Johnson entered the fifth race of the Chase in position to contend for a sixth title, but a crash with Ryan Newman dropped him to eighth, 35 points out of the lead, and he never recovered.
One of the darkest days in NASCAR history was remembered at this year's Daytona 500. The occasion marked 10 years since Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup champion and 1998 Daytona 500 winner, was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Much of Speedweeks at Daytona was devoted to remembering Earnhardt and how that fateful day led to dramatic improvements in safety, including the mandatory use of the Head and Neck Support (HANS) Device and the implementation of the SAFER Barrier. It was also a celebration of Earnhardt's tremendous career and the impact he left on NASCAR.
It was already a fait accompli that Danica Patrick was going to leave the IZOD IndyCar Series at the end of this season to become a full-time NASCAR driver. She made it official on Aug. 25, announcing that she would become a full-time NASCAR Nationwide driver for JR Motorsports while driving 10 Sprint Cup races in 2012. She also announced she would move up to a full-time Cup ride with Stewart Haas Racing in 2013. Despite all of her fanfare, Patrick won just one IndyCar race in 115 career starts over seven years.
At the beginning of the season NASCAR did away with its old points system, moving to one that essentially awards one point per position in inverse order to the finish. If a driver was 33 points out of first place, it meant he had to best the points leader by 33 positions on the racetrack. There would also be one point, rather than five, for leading a lap, one point for leading the most laps and three points for winning a race. That created an easier to understand system, but it also meant poor finishes were more costly than in the past, leading to some volatility in the standings. In the end, however, NASCAR got just what it wanted -- an incredibly dramatic Chase for the Championship.
In one of the most controversial and blatant moves in NASCAR history, Kyle Busch intentionally drove Ron Hornaday into the wall during a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Texas on Nov. 4. Hornaday's truck was demolished, and NASCAR officials parked Busch for the remainder of the race. It would only get worse for Busch as he was suspended for the following day's Nationwide race and that weekend's Cup race. In addition, NASCAR fined Busch $50,000 and his sponsor, M&M's, pulled their decals off his Cup car for the final two races. He vowed to make sure his temper never got the best of him again.
Bayne earned the respect of many drivers in the field at the Daytona 500, including Jeff Gordon, after he showed an instant aptitude for the two-car tandem style of racing necessary on the restrictor plate tracks. But few drivers -- including Bayne himself -- actually expected the 19-year-old could win NASCAR's biggest race in only his second Sprint Cup start. Bayne thought he would be the "pusher," helping another driver to victory, but when he came off the fourth turn with the lead heading to the checkered flag, Bayne was as astonished as anyone that he won the Daytona 500. NASCAR's newest star took the oldest team -- the Wood Brothers -- to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500 for the first time since David Pearson won it in 1976.
The 2011 season was known for a slew of first-time winners, as Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), David Ragan (Coke Zero 400), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen) all accomplished the feat. There were also 18 different winners in the 36 Cup races this season. None of the first-time winners made the 12-driver Chase field.
Through the first half of the season the speculation focused on where Carl Edwards would race in 2012. He was in the final year of a contract with Roush Fenway Racing and all indications pointed to him leaving to join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2012. But just a few days after the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, Edwards announced he was staying with team owner Jack Roush.
One of NASCAR's biggest controversies occurred on the way to the track at the first-ever Cup race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI) expanded the track from 61,000 seats to 107,000 prior to the Cup debut, but the infrastructure around the track was unable to accommodate such a crowd. Interstate 71, which is the main artery from the North of Cincinnati to the South of Lexington and Louisville, is essentially two lanes in each direction, which created a massive traffic jam with as many as 20,000 race fans unable to even get to the track. Many of those fans were turned away by the Kentucky State Police because the traffic pattern was being reversed. Needless to say, many of those fans vowed would never visit the track again.
Although he won a race at Kansas in June, Brad Keselowski looked as though he would miss the Chase in his second full Sprint Cup season. But after crashing and injuring his leg in a crash during testing at Road Atlanta in August, his season suddenly improved. He would win the next race at Pocono and three weeks later at Bristol to start a stretch where he moved from 21st to 11th in points. Keselowski would gain entry into the Chase as a wild card and once there, he made the most of the opportunity, finishing fifth in points.
First, Kyle Busch got in a rumble with Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick at Darlington in May that ended with Harvick attempting to take a few swings at Busch while seated in his race car. Afterward, Busch decided to dump Harvick's driver-less Chevrolet into the wall on pit road. And when Busch wrecked Joey Coulter in one of Richard Childress Racing's trucks in a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas, the 65-year-old team owner decided to take matters into his own hands. He put the 26-year-old Busch in a headlock and punched him several times in the head. NASCAR officials would fine Childress $150,000, but the team owner said it was "worth every penny."
When NASCAR changed the height of the spoiler and took away the front splitter of the race cars, replacing them with the more traditional front nose, it created a unique style of racing on the two restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. By having one car tuck its nose under the rear of a car in front it created a draft that worked perfectly for just two cars. That meant a driver could not excel without the help of another car pushing him. It was a style of racing that made partnerships between teams and drivers more important than the actual race cars. The fans hated this style of racing, and NASCAR chairman Brian France said changes would be made to prevent the two-car tandems in 2012.
Curiously, NASCAR doled out "secret fines" to drivers this year for incidents that happened off the racetrack. Ryan Newman was fined $50,000 for punching out Juan Pablo Montoya at Darlington in May. In early November, Brad Keselowski criticized NASCAR's upcoming move to fuel injection and that earned the Penske Racing driver a fined believed to be $25,000. NASCAR chairman Brian France defended the covert fines, comparing it to a restaurant owner who criticizes the food losing customers. France doesn't want any of the drivers criticizing NASCAR. Last year, Denny Hamlin was fined for critical comments he made on Twitter.