NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Turn Back the Clock: 2011 NASCAR Season, a Renewal

A red and white No. 21 Ford Fusion driven by a 20-year-old raced out of Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway. Holding off three other competitors for another few hundred yards, the car took the checkered flag in first place and proceeded to get lost on the way to victory lane.

The winner of the 2011 Daytona 500 was none other than rookie Trevor Bayne, who had celebrated his 20th birthday less than 24 hours before this moment.

It had been 35 years since Wood Brothers Racing won at the superspeedway. Not since David Pearson’s destroyed car trundled across the start-finish line in 1976, ahead of Richard Petty’s similarly crumpled No. 43, had the team been to victory lane in NASCAR’s most historic setting.

Little did anyone know at the time, the win set a precedent for the 2011 NASCAR Cup Series season – one of unpredictability, excitement and change.

Eighteen different drivers in the sport’s premier division won races in 2011. With that figure comprising half the races on the schedule, five of those winners were first-timers. This variance in the winner’s circle was capped off by one of the greatest championship battles and postseason runs the sport had ever seen, a season-ending tie in the standings decided by the autumn charge of a past champion.

2011 marked a point of change for NASCAR as a whole. No, it wasn’t a changing of the guard in the drivers’ seats – stars like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart were still in the midst of their storied careers – and it wasn’t a complete overhaul of certain aspects of the sport, be it with scheduling or car design.

Rather, it was somewhat of a purgatory for the sport in between eras – the Car of Tomorrow was still the standardized Cup Series car body, albeit with some changes. Debuting in 2007 with a limited schedule, the CoT’s run lasted until the end of 2012, but was not without its alterations.

Originally designed as a boxy car with several soon-to-be-defining features, its debut and implementation were not without both criticism and praise – the former for its performance, the latter for its improved safety, probably best seen in Michael McDowell’s violent wreck at Texas Motor Speedway during qualifying in 2008.

The aforementioned defining features included an adjustable front splitter, bridged by metal braces and a rear wing in place of a spoiler. The rear wing was a particular target for criticism, having played a role in the airborne crashes of Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski, all of which occurred in the span of less than a year.

For 2011, NASCAR made some changes – keeping the boxy appearance, but changing the front and back ends. The splitter was no longer adjustable, and changed to one complete bumper piece, sans the row of metal struts and the wing was changed to a solid, rectangular spoiler. The spoiler had been run as part of an experimental partial schedule in 2010, split with the previously used wing. Both changes helped the cars look more streamlined and, more importantly, seemed to keep them on the ground. The Cup Series had just three flips over the two-year usage of the new design, none of which were caused by air lifting the cars.

2011 also marked the end of Johnson’s historic reign as champion. Although he would win two more in the decade, tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s all-time mark of seven titles, Johnson’s streak of five championships in a row came to an end as two other drivers engaged in a point battle for the ages.

Tandem drafting was taken to new levels in 2011 at superspeedways, its only year of prominence before additional rules and revamped car design eradicated the practice in the years afterward. Drivers would find a friend to draft with at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, typically a teammate, utilizing the additional speed to propel the pair towards the front.

The season kicked off with the aforementioned stunning conclusion to the 53rd Daytona 500, a race that ended up being more or less a wreckfest. The tandem drafting quickly turned sour on lap 30 as David Reutimann’s No. 00 was turned by owner and teammate Michael Waltrip, causing a pileup in Turn 4 that claimed nearly 15 cars.

After 12 more caution flags over the course of the race, the final laps saw three, two-car tandems breaking away from the pack. The duo of Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya faded back, giving way to two tandems with three drivers who had either never won or hadn’t in years: Trevor Bayne, a 20-year-old in just his second start for Wood Brothers Racing, Bobby Labonte, the 2000 series champion in his first start for JTG Daugherty Racing and David Gilliland, a winless veteran of the series, driving for a team that also had a zero in the victory column. The fourth driver? A veteran, then-18-time winner Carl Edwards, driving for the highest-profile team in the four-car breakaway, Roush Fenway Racing.

Ultimately, Bayne blocked Edwards and held on to win the Daytona 500, winning NASCAR’s most prestigious event. As if Bayne’s win wasn’t shocking enough, it was the first of five instances that season where a Cup Series driver scored their first win.

Not to be outdone, Regan Smith scored his first victory less than two months later at Darlington Raceway, also giving Furniture Row Racing its first win in NASCAR. Smith also edged out Edwards, who could’ve used a win in either runner-up effort later on in the season.

Continuing the trend of first-time visitors to victory lane, David Ragan was next on the list. Then, driving the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway, a restart violation killed his chances of winning the Daytona 500. Ragan’s redemption came at the 400-mile summer event at the same track. Ragan survived a night filled with crashes and sparks to win his first race, his only triumph in five full-time seasons driving for RFR.

Next in line were Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose. Menard’s No. 27 Chevrolet won a fuel-mileage nailbiter at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, outlasting Gordon to cross the yard of bricks first and claim the only win of his Cup career.

Road course specialist Ambrose had come close to his first win a year prior at Sonoma Raceway, but issues while trying to conserve fuel foiled his race. Watkins Glen was the rabbit’s foot for Ambrose in 2011, as he held off Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, in a preview of the next year’s final laps at The Glen.

Ambrose’s first win came on a final lap marred by several incidents, the most notable being Ragan and Reutimann’s violent crash at the entrance of the esses. Ragan and Boris Said made contact, sending Ragan’s Ford head-on into the metal guardrail. The No. 6 car hit the barriers on both sides of the track, but it was Reutimann who got the worst of it. Both drivers were released from the Infield Care Center, a fortunate resolution to the scariest crash of the year.

Fifteen different drivers scored wins in the 26 regular-season races of the year. April’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega produced the most notable finish, with tandem drafting playing the biggest role it had or would all season. Underdog Dave Blaney led for a while and looked to have a strong car, but fell back and spun late in the race.

Four tandem draft pairs broke away from the pack and vied for the lead on the final lap: two from Hendrick Motorsports, one from Richard Childress Racing and one from Roush Fenway Racing. The four pairs were in essence four-wide at the finish line, but it was Johnson – in fifth as they exited Turn 4 – pushed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the race, edging Clint Bowyer (pushed by teammate Kevin Harvick) by .002 seconds.

Bowyer got his revenge later in the season, though, winning Talladega with a last-lap pass on teammate Jeff Burton. Bowyer barely edged Burton for the win, but the RCR stablemates were so far out in front of the pack, they might as well have been in their own zip code.

That finish was a far cry from the fall race at Talladega the next year, when the reestablished pack racing led to a pileup of more than 25 cars on the last lap.

Kyle Busch won the spring night race at Richmond Raceway, the third year in a row in which he had won the April event at the track. Busch continued that streak the following year, ending up with four wins in a row and cementing his place as a driver to be feared in the Commonwealth.

A few weeks later, Edwards won the All-Star Race, destroying his car in the process. During his victory burnouts, he spun his No. 99 Ford into the infield, unknowingly sliding into a dip in the turf and hitting a drain cover. The collision was spectacular, all but destroying the front end of the car and sending up a spray of sheet metal and grass. Edwards made up for the shortened celebration with a shrug, his signature backflip and a visit to the grandstands.

The following weekend saw even more drama to end a race – Earnhardt, nearing three years without a victory, led into the final turn on the final lap of the 600-mile race, but didn’t cross the finish line a winner. His No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas, sputtering to the checkered flag as Harvick passed him and won the race. Eerily, just a few hours earlier, the Indianapolis 500 had also been decided by a National Guard-sponsored car having an issue in the final corner – J.R. Hildebrand crashed on the frontstretch, giving the win to Dan Wheldon.

2011’s summer stretch leading up to the Chase tacked on a few other winners, including three visits to victory lane for relative newcomer Keselowski. He scored wins at Kansas Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway, finding success in his sophomore season at Team Penske.

Top Chase seed Harvick won the regular season finale at Richmond, a race filled with chaos and playoff drama. A lap 9 crash was the most notable incident of the night, with nearly 15 cars piling up in the fourth turn. Included in this melee were playoff drivers Earnhardt, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

That race didn’t conclude without tempers flaring. A crash involving Ambrose and Red Bull Racing drivers Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers ended with Vickers sideways on the frontstretch, intentionally blocking Ambrose from continuing under caution. The later stages of the race featured Earnhardt retaliating against Travis Kvapil for earlier contact, as well as Kurt Busch and Johnson each spinning one another out.

Harvick’s eventual win tied him with Kyle Busch for the most wins on the season (four), but that figure would crumble before the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway flew.

Notable drivers missing the postseason were AJ Allmendinger and Bowyer, both of whom were less than 15 points back with one race remaining. Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. were all left on the outside looking in as well.

Allmendinger’s and Bowyer’s lost out on the final playoff spot to two-time champion Stewart after Richmond. Stewart’s self-owned team had done moderately well during the regular season, with Stewart himself doing just enough to stay in contention for the Chase but failing to win. Teammate Ryan Newman, meanwhile, sat ahead of Stewart after Richmond and had won earlier in the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Stewart led the standings just once in 2011 prior to the Chase – after finishing second at the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a race Edwards won. This presented a precursor to the two drivers becoming indelibly linked as the season went on.

Stewart fell down the standings soon after, dropping out of the top 10 and only bouncing back as high as seventh before the postseason cutoff. The owner-driver remained mired in the bottom half of Chase-eligible drivers for the last 16 regular season races and was seeded last when the playoff field was set. It didn’t help that some retaliation from Vickers at Sonoma Raceway left Stewart’s No. 14 on top of the tire barriers in Turn 11.

Meanwhile, Edwards was having an incredible season, leading the standings at several intervals throughout the year. The most notable stretch was when Edwards spent a nearly three-month, 10-race stint at the top of the charts from Texas to Sonoma. Although Edwards dropped down the standings as the regular season waned, he still held a fifth seed going into the Chase.

Then came the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and Stewart exploded.

Back-to-back wins. Back-to-back finishes outside of the top 10, runs that left something to be desired. Then back-to-back top 10s. Back-to-back wins. A third at Phoenix Raceway. A win at Homestead.

Stewart put together an incredible run of five wins, eight top-10 finishes and 403 total points over the final 10 races. By my rough calculations based on the points system that year, it was possible to score a maximum of 480 points over that 10-race span (per race, a driver could earn 43 points for first place, three for winning a race, one for leading a lap and one for leading the most laps).

Stewart came pretty damn close to perfection in those final races. It was as good of a Chase run as anyone could want.

Beginning the Chase, Stewart won the first two events at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire, throwing his name into the ring as one of the favorites in the postseason and shooting to the top of the standings, surpassing Harvick.

Two races later, Stewart was stuck in seventh in points after 25th- and 15th-place runs at Dover International Speedway and Kansas, respectively. He jumped to fourth after back-to-back top-10 efforts at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega, leaving four races to gain three spots in the standings.

Stewart did just that. In the final four races that saw Stewart and Edwards finish one right behind the other three times (and both drivers finish in the top 10 all four times), Stewart pulled off consecutive victories at Martinsville Speedway and Texas.

2011’s penultimate race at Phoenix was won by Kahne, winning the second-to-last race of Red Bull Racing’s swan song season. Second and third went to Edwards and Stewart, respectively, giving Cousin Carl a three-point advantage heading into the final race at Homestead.

It was a clash of the titans in Miami. Stewart, who had dominated the nine races thus far of the postseason but still had a razor-thin margin to make up, and Edwards, who had been at or near the top of the points standings for much of the season with just one victory.

Each driver needed the other to suffer issues during the race that would end their chances at a championship or simply have a car not nearly as good as the other.

Neither of those things happened.

Edwards led nearly half the race, leading early and often, while Stewart worked his way through the field. Smoke had to work his way up through the pack again after grille damage sent him to the back, and the two eventually began to trade spots (and paint) as rain stopped the race several times.

Stewart and Edwards traded the lead back and forth several times over the last 100 laps, but it was Stewart who pitted late, made it pay off and took the lead on lap 232, leading the last 36 laps en route to the victory.

The two drivers tied for first in the standings when Homestead concluded, and the title was awarded to Stewart by virtue of his five wins against Edwards’ single victory.

As if the tie hadn’t encapsulated the championship battle enough, two other images did as well. Edwards and Stewart drove side by side on the cool-down lap after the checkered flag flew, waving at one another, and Edwards then ventured out onto the track after his post-race interview. As Stewart came to a stop on the frontstretch, Edwards leaned into the window to congratulate him. The two could be seen smiling from Stewart’s in-car camera as Edwards shook the now-three-time champion’s hand.

It provided the perfect sendoff for the 2011 season, with two experienced, talented veterans using consistency and momentum to mount one of the greatest championship battles in recent memory.

From the perspective of Stewart, it was the rebound of a lifetime – a regular season stuck in points purgatory followed by an extraordinary postseason en route to a championship.

On the other hand, it’s a season of what could have been for Edwards. Seven runner-up finishes, three of them consecutive to end the season – all of which could have changed the championship had Edwards won just one of the races.

In a way, Edwards’ season is reflective of all those runner-up finishes – so close to winning Daytona, the Southern 500 (as well as five other races) and ultimately the championship.

Neither Stewart’s average start nor average finish were above 10th, yet Smoke came alive at just the right time to win his third title. Edwards’ season, meanwhile, found the Missouri native scoring 26 top-10 finishes and as many top-five efforts (19) as Stewart had top-10s all season. Edwards recorded an average starting spot of 9.4 and finishing position of 9.3, reflecting his consistency. But issues in only a few races proved to be the ultimate difference – an early crash in the summer at Daytona, a pole that withered to a 28th-place finish at Phoenix and several other misfortunes didn’t help. Stewart’s completion of 99.3% of the series’ laps that season also benefited him, finishing just five races off the lead lap or in the garage.

2011 also had its share of wild moments in NASCAR’s other series – who could forget then-Nationwide Series (now the Xfinity Series) teammates Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashing across the line for the win at Iowa Speedway or Stewart’s and Bowyer’s down-to-the-wire Nationwide finish at Daytona? Or, in the then-Camping World Truck Series (now the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series), Michael Waltrip’s only series win at Daytona or the infamous incident between Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas?

On a personal note – at the time and in retrospect, 2011 remains my favorite season since I started watching NASCAR full-time. Despite being a fan since 2001, 2011 was the first time I watched faithfully, turning on the TV for as many races as I could across the major series. That season means so much to me personally, but it was also an iconic season for the sport.

It’s an enthralling, compelling year in which 18 different drivers won races, five of them first-time visitors to victory lane, and the cars fans saw on track began to once again evolve. It’s a year of firsts and lasts, of previews for the future – Keselowski’s breakthrough that year with Penske would eventually net him a championship a year later. It was a vibrant year – a bevy of eye-catching primary and special paint schemes and beautiful track settings, and the new, streamlined cars made watching the sport even more exciting and enjoyable.

When Bayne sailed under the checkered flag to win the first race of the year, the 2011 NASCAR season offered up a promise of unpredictability and excitement. It delivered.

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