Matt McLaughlin · Wednesday December 14, 2011
Was the 2011 Cup season a good one, a bad one or a lousy one? Truthfully there were moments this year that met all three definitions. One way or the other, what is conclusive it that the season is finally over. Before closing the books, let’s take a quick back look at some of the highlights, lowlights and abominations of this season’s NASCAR series.
The Homestead Season Finale Determines a Champion – In what was certainly the best race of the season if not the decade, this year’s Cup title was on the line. Tony Stewart knew he could finish no worse than second in the points no matter how his race went. He was also aware if he won the race he had the championship tied up even if Carl Edwards finished second and led the most laps. And that’s how it played out in the end, though to add a little extra drama three laps into the race pieces from Kurt Busch’s expired transmission punctured the grille of Stewart’s car and there were initially concerns if the No. 14 car’s radiator had been compromised. Throughout the race, Stewart drove WFO especially on the restarts and as the laps wound down he was in the lead. Edwards made an all out charge at Stewart but couldn’t close the gap.
I’ve heard from fans who watched the race in the grandstands and others who watched on TV. Both sets of viewers told me it was probably the first time a race had held their complete attention start to finish in years. Many of us were up on our feet, pacing about and biting nails as the event drew to its dramatic conclusion. Other fans admitted to screaming out loud during the race. Could it have been better? Sure, the Nos. 99 and the 14 could have been banging fenders with tire smoke pouring out from beneath the cars in a drag race out of the fourth turn to the checkers, but Homestead is a long way from Hollywood and its only in the movies do things end that perfectly.
Was it a better race than the 1992 Atlanta season finale? No, I’m sorry it was not. Was it the best season finale since that magic afternoon in Georgia? Absolutely, it was.
First-Time Winners – Everybody loves a first time winner. Trevor Bayne kicked off the season with a stunning victory in the Daytona 500 in what was only his second ever Cup start. Regan Smith pulled a similar upset at Darlington in May, driving for one of the least funded teams on the circuit. David Ragan finally scored his first Cup victory in the Firecracker 400, making it a clean sweep for the first-timers at Daytona this year. Perhaps Marcos Ambrose’s win at Watkins Glen was a bit less of an upset given his road racing background but it was another first time win all the same. Finally, Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400, at a track almost synonymous with his family’s name.
Some Approximation of Parity – For cars with bodies that appear so similar, a lot of fans can’t distinguish them from one another the results posted by the four automakers involved with NASCAR tend to be very dissimilar. This year, Ford teams returned to respectability after a few seasons of having their faces rubbed in the dirt. In addition to the two Daytona wins, Matt Kenseth won three times and Carl Edwards posted Vegas in the win column for Roush Fords. Marcos Ambrose posted that Watkins Glen win for Richard Petty Motorsports, while Edwards led the points most of the season. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch was Toyota’s most prolific winner this season with four wins. His JGR teammate Denny Hamlin won just once and the third JGR Camry, Joey Logano, may have well been invisible most of the season. Kasey Kahne posted a surprise win at Phoenix late in the season at the wheel of another Toyota. (That was a feel-good story in and of itself with the Red Bull Team Kahne drove for this year about to shutter up operations. If nothing else, it gave all those Red Bull team members a nice little extra to list on their resumes as they seek new employment.) Though only two Dodges compete regularly in the Cup Series, both out of Roger Penske’s shop, Brad Keselowski had a breakthrough season, scoring three victories in a Charger or some approximation thereof. Kurt Busch won at Sonoma, then Dover at the wheel of a Dodge despite complaining what a garbage scow he was driving most of the day. (The elder of the Busch brothers has since departed the Penske team in a mutually agreed upon deal… sure, like the Kadashians.) Chevys came on strong late in the season especially with Tony Stewart, winning five of this year’s final ten races. Naturally, Chevys won the most races and yet another manufacturer’s title. Considering they have HMS, RCR, and Stewart’s (Hendrick aided) operation in the fold, three top-tier teams compared to one each for Ford, Dodge and Toyota, that was inevitable.
Darlington – In addition to a great race decided on the final lap and a surprise first time winner there was that memorable post-race dustup between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, Busch’s first but certainly not last bit of misconduct this year. (Maybe it’s just me, but if a guy twice your age pauses to take off his jewelry and whips your ass I’d think you might need to be a bit more polite.) Unlike many races this season, Hell most races this season, there was actually an almost capacity crowd at Darlington that evening. I guarantee you there is no other track on the circuit, not Daytona not Phoenix not Texas, that could sell that many tickets on such an awkward race date. (The eve of Mother’s Day.) Maybe someday Darlington’s race date will be returned to the schedule where it belongs, a five hundred mile race run in the blazing hot Carolina afternoon sun during the Labor Day weekend. I just hope I’m still around to see it.
Brad Keselowski – Every season, there seems to be one driver who breaks on through from the ranks of a journeyman to the top tier of the sport. This year, it was Keselowski who won three times and was a legitimate title threat right up until the last laps at Martinsville this Fall. In addition to posting career-defining numbers, Keselowski demonstrated a newfound maturity in dealing with the media, fans, his team and his peers for the most part. (Though that one ESPN interview Keselowski gave Marty Smith was kind of creepy with the driver of the No. 2 car admitting he still has a major chip on his shoulder. Hey, at least he’s honest about it.) Of course, it wasn’t difficult for Keselowski to figure out how to act properly. All he had to do was look at his teammate Kurt Busch and not do as he did.
August Iowa Nationwide Race – Though few people seemed to have been watching it this year’s second Nationwide race at Iowa gets this year’s award for the most bizarre and surprising finish of the NASCAR season. After a protracted battle, Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. entered the final lap of the race with Stenhouse in the lead. Coming out of the fourth corner, Stenhouse’s engine blew in a cloud of smoke and a gusher of oil. Unable to see or steer his car behind his stricken teammate Edwards slammed directly into the back of the No. 6 car. As they crossed the finish line the rear tires of Stenhouse’s Ford were on the hood of the No. 60 behind him… but the sophomore held on, taking the win. And you thought the tandem racing at Talladega was close quarters racing?
Rising Rookies – It’s hard to believe from my perspective, but even those drivers once considered “the Young Guns” are growing older. Guys like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are no longer spring chickens. But there’s hope for the future watching the efforts of numerous young drivers like Ricky Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, and the Dillon brothers Austin and Ty. Bill Elliott’s boy Chase is beginning to make some noise in the lesser circuits. Are they ready for Cup full time? Nope, not even in the case of Bayne who won this year’s Daytona 500. But their days are likely coming.
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