For nearly the last 20 seasons, the NASCAR landscape has included — and sometimes been dominated by — the playoffs.
Since 2004, NASCAR has had some form of “postseason,” which has continued to have mixed reaction from fans, mainly in an attempt to keep the final stretch of a very long season exciting to fans (not to mention to attempt to compete with NFL football season).
The playoffs (formerly the Chase for the Championship) have had some moments. You don’t have to look very far back to find history being made; 2022 has already featured the most wins from non-contending drivers ever. The entire opening round of three races were won by drivers not eligible for the driver’s title and the second round opened with a win from a driver who was eliminated the week before.
The playoff system has undergone an evolution before arriving at the current format, but one season in particular stands out (and probably had a major influence on the current setup). Now, the season always comes down to the final race thanks to the rulebook, but in 2011, it came down to the final laps without multiple eliminations and resets along the way.
That was the year it ended in a tie.
If the 1992 finale is the gold standard for title races (it came down to six drivers without any playoff system in place), 2011 is the best playoff run the sport ever produced. The current system ensures that the season will never again end on a tiebreaker.
NASCAR didn’t reward the driver leading the points before the playoff reset at the time, but after 26 races Kyle Busch held a slim three-point lead over defending (defending defending defending defending) champion Jimmie Johnson. After the playoff reset, Kevin Harvick shared the top spot with the younger Busch. The 12 contenders were separated by a mere 12 points as the playoffs kicked off. Officially seeded last on a tiebreaker was two-time champion Tony Stewart, whose season hadn’t been anything to write home about.
Stewart didn’t win in the first 26 races and only had three top-five finishes to his name. He had a couple of runner-up finishes but didn’t look like a title contender.
Carl Edwards entered the final 10 races a few points ahead of Stewart. Edwards had one win, in March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (a race in which Stewart finished second) but a whopping 17 top 10s. He seemed like a more likely prospect than Stewart, though probably wasn’t on a lot of people’s lists as the frontrunner.
For a lot of fans, the 2011 playoffs would be a success if just one thing happened: unseating Johnson from the five-year stranglehold he’d had on the Cup title. Johnson’s record five straight was certainly one of the most impressive Cup records ever set … but to fans of other drivers, it was anything but fun to witness Johnson’s rampage.
The 2011 playoffs opened at Chicagoland Speedway. The race was dominated by the title contenders, with playoff drivers capturing eight of the top-10 spots. Kurt Busch led the most laps of the day with 64. Edwards carted home yet another top 10, finishing fourth as the top Ford in the field after leading 39 laps.
The day, though, belonged to Stewart. He took his first win of 2011 by just under a second over future teammate Harvick.
Harvick left Chicago on top of the standings, with Stewart trailing by seven points, a gain of 10 positions on the ladder. Edwards sat third, just three behind Stewart. Nothing about the race, save perhaps Stewart’s win, foreshadowed the battle royal that was to come.
Race No. 2 took the Cup Series to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The playoff drivers were more spread through the field at the finish. Notably, Johnson finished a lackluster 18th and tumbled to 10th in the standings. Edwards finished eighth, notching top 10 No. 19.
And Stewart, who had finished second in Loudon in July, won again. He led just two laps (Jeff Gordon led the most at 78), but they were the right two laps. Crew chief Darian Grubb was a master at fuel mileage races, and Stewart took this one by more than seven seconds over Brad Keselowski.
Stewart left Loudon with the point lead. Edwards slipped to fourth, 14 back. If fans didn’t know what was about to unfold, they now knew that Stewart was a contender.
The next week, the Cup Series headed to another 1-mile oval, but Dover isn’t anything like Loudon, and neither were the results. Kurt Busch took the checkers over Johnson, with Edwards coming home third.
Stewart finished two laps down in 25th, last among the playoff drivers. It was the first dent in Stewart’s armor since the playoffs started. It cost him the point lead; Harvick took it back tied with Edwards while Stewart fell to a tie for third with Kurt Busch, nine points behind. Johnson sat on their heels in fifth.
There was no points reset after three races in 2011, and the playoffs moved on to Kansas Speedway. Johnson led 197 of 267 laps and beat Kasey Kahne to the checkers by half a second.
Edwards finished fifth (top 10 number 20), enough to leave with the point lead.
Stewart looked a lot like he had during the regular season, finishing 15th — a decently consistent finish but not much more. He did not lead a lap, and fell to seventh in points. He was 19 behind Edwards, and given Edwards’ consistency, a fairly big deficit.
The midpoint of the playoffs came at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a 500-mile contest on the oval. Another title hopeful, 2003 champ Matt Kenseth, won that battle by .9 seconds over Kyle Busch. Edwards just kept on rolling, finishing third. Stewart rebounded to eighth but left Charlotte 24 points behind Edwards in fifth spot. A crash ended Johnson’s night and dashed his title hopes as he fell to eighth in points, a position from which he couldn’t recover far enough to defend his string of titles.
Talladega Superspeedway was next, and it was … Talladega. Clint Bowyer was the first non-playoff driver to score a win in the 2011 playoffs, with Jeff Burton and Dave Blaney taking the top three spots before a playoff driver — Kenseth — hit the board in fourth.
Stewart, in seventh, was the next-best among the playoff drivers. Edwards finished 11th, his only finish outside the top 10 in the playoff races. His point lead grew to 14 over Kenseth, with Stewart in fourth, 19 behind.
The seventh race moved from NASCAR’s longest oval to its shortest, little Martinsville Speedway. For many of the playoff drivers, it was a chance to rebound a bit, and contenders took the top five spots. Edwards finished ninth, but this week, the top 10 wasn’t enough to keep his point lead comfortable. Stewart took his third win of the postseason, moving into striking distance of Edwards, just eight back with nobody between them as a buffer. With three to go, the brawl began in earnest.
The title fight at Texas came down to the wire again. Edwards led a handful of laps and finished second … but Stewart dominated, leading 173 laps, including the last five and winning for the fourth time in the playoffs — and the entire year.
Edwards left Texas with a three-point advantage, and it was pretty clear that the only challenger would be Stewart. Harvick fell to 33 points behind, not insurmountable if Harvick or Edwards stumbled, but not easily overcome in a couple of races.
By the time the penultimate race at Phoenix Raceway was over, Harvick’s chances were gone along with the rest of the field. Kahne was the second winner from outside the playoffs, but Edwards and Stewart finished second and third respectively. Edwards’ advantage as the series rolled into Homestead-Miami Speedway for the final race was still just three. Stewart lad the most laps at Phoenix, and that bonus point would loom large at Homestead.
In 2011, there was no points reset before the final race, and the top-finishing driver didn’t automatically win the Cup. Both Stewart and Edwards entered the weekend knowing that the only way to clinch the title was to win.
There were other ways, of course. If either driver fell out of the race, or had a poor finish, the other could prevail. Edwards’ slight advantage meant he could take the title by beating Stewart regardless of the win. Bonus points could (and would) play a role.
Edwards struck first, winning the pole and leading the first 14 laps. He led three more times before Stewart took the point for the first time.
Edwards led more and more laps as the race went on, leading as late as lap 214 of 267. All in all, he led six times for a race-high 119 laps. Score two bonus points for Edwards—one for leading a lap, one for leading the most.
But Stewart also led laps. All told, he led four times for 65 laps. And one of those was the last lap. The win brought Stewart a second bonus to go with the one for leading. And the win was worth one point more than second place, where Edwards finished.
After 10 weeks, it came down to a tie.
The tiebreaker at the time was simply the number of wins. Stewart had five, all in the playoffs, while Edwards’ early-season victory remained his only one. That extra bonus point from Phoenix? It ultimately decided the champion.
The title was Stewart’s third and last as a driver. The tie was the closest Edwards would ultimately come to one of his own. The playoff system changed in 2014 to the current one which doesn’t allow for the type of playoff battle Stewart and Edwards waged, because Stewart’s victories and Edwards’ consistency (he finished the season with 26 top 10s!) would have been erased.
The playoffs have the reputation of making the title worth less than a full-season championship, and there’s some truth to that. But in 2011, it came down to zero points and five playoff wins. It was the closest-contested title of the 21st century — and NASCAR’s rules mean without a change, it can never happen again.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.