For 400 miles on Sunday, the stock car racing world was fixated on two of the sport’s heavyweights in Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart…and for good reason. The final green flag run that saw the two title contenders go 1-2 in the finishing order was as intense as they come, a battle for the ages. And while the performances put forward by the underdogs at the back of the Sprint Cup field were not of the same historical significance, there was plenty of cause for respect and admiration with regard to these competitors as they wrapped up another grueling season. With 2011 now in the books, here’s to one last look at the lesser-known trials, tribulations and triumphs of big league racing’s little guys.
Score One for David
It wasn’t the Southern 500 victory, but Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing delivered a fitting conclusion to what was a historic year for the Colorado-based race team. Smith and team qualified in the top-20, ran there all day, and came home in the 13th position, the best result the team has ever posted at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Smith closed out the 2011 campaign with three consecutive top-20 qualifying efforts and five top-20 results over the course of the Chase. To say that both driver and team improved over leaps and bounds in 2011 is an understatement; this very well may be the underdog story, and most improved team, of the year in all of NASCAR racing. Take a bow gentlemen, for a job very well done.
Based on Andy Lally’s Twitter feed earlier in the week, the breakup between he and TRG Motorsports was not the most amicable. That situation aside, Mike Bliss did just about everything that TRG could ask in the No. 71 on Sunday. The veteran raced the team’s car into the field for the final race of the season, and delivered a strong run that would have put a serious dent in the owner points gap between them and Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 car. It wasn’t enough to lock the No. 71 back into the field for the Daytona 500 in February, but the 21st-place run was still notable in that it was the team’s best run all year on a downforce track (Lally finished 19th in the spring race at Talladega and 21st at the Glen). Should this team return in 2012, look for Bliss to be on the short list of possible drivers come Speedweeks.
That 21st-place run was all but meaningless because Travis Kvapil finished only one spot behind the No. 71 car in 22nd, his third top-25 result in the last five races. That’s no small deal for the No. 38 team in that they spent the better part of 2011 playing catch-up, racing their way back into the top-35 after a wreck-filled start to the season dropped the team out of that vital owner points position. What’s more, it statistically validated just how far Kvapil’s season has come. Involved in a rash of ugly wrecks to start the year and losing his Truck ride with Randy Moss Motorsports after a lack of performance, Kvapil turned in more top-25s during the Chase than he did the rest of the 2011 season. With pressure coming from within Front Row Motorsports now that the team signed JJ Yeley, Kvapil stepped his game up and got the No. 38 team back where it was needed. That may well prove to be a saving grace in the months to come.
Geoffrey Bodine finished a distant 30th, but that result was both the first race that he finished in his time with Tommy Baldwin Racing…and his first Cup race running at the finish since the spring Michigan race way back in 2004.
Score One for Goliath
While Kvapil was busy turning his season around at FRM, the team’s flagship driver in David Gilliland had the exact opposite conclusion to a season that started on the highest of highs. Scoring a team-best third-place finish in the Daytona 500 and heading into the fall Talladega race with the best average of all Sprint Cup drivers in plate races, Gilliland’s strength early in the season has been a distant memory. Finishing 22 laps off the pace in the 33rd position this Sunday, Gilliland ended the Chase run with only two top-30 finishes in the last ten races. Did Front Row simply allocate resources to the No. 38 to make sure they’d have two locked-in cars for 2012? Maybe. Issue is, Gilliland already took that bullet last year to deal with Kevin Conway and Travis Kvapil’s collective performance issues. It’s hard to be a flagship driver doing that.
Lap 154 took out not one, not two, but three underdogs in one fell swoop. Getting loose exiting turn 2 while racing with Jamie McMurray, Landon Cassill lost control of his No. 51 car and went headfirst into the backstretch wall trying to catch it. Cassill’s machine left Cole Whitt with no room to dodge the wreck, as the No. 84 Toyota piled into the No. 51; both drivers were parked for the evening as a result of the incident in 36th and 37th. And while Trevor Bayne avoided contact in the wreck, the debris that resulted ended up shredding the left front tire of Bayne’s No. 21 Ford, pulverizing the left front fender of the car. Bayne’s team was able to repair the machine and get the car back on track, but the result was only a 25th-place finish, snapping a streak of top-20s for the Wood Brothers operation.
The Winner: Push
Outside of the lap 154 wreck, a lot of the smaller teams in the field closed their 2011 on a strong note. But for many of those teams, there’s little, if any, certainty that they’ll even be around for 2012. Regan Smith and Co. led the pack as they have all season long, but the continued struggles of David Gilliland and the unknown future of TRG, Phoenix Racing, the Red Bull Racing Team and others still cast a shadow over some solid results.
The 2011 Chase:
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