From first time winners to a three time champion, there no shortage of story lines from the 2011 Sprint Cup season. There was a fair amount of good, a little of bad and even a bit of ugly to keep NASCAR nation abuzz.
1. Wins matter in championship tie-breaker. With five victories in 10 chase races, Tony Stewart wins the tie-breaker in his sprint to the finish with Carl Edwards, whose average chase finish of 4.9 would be good enough to win a championship in most seasons. Without question, the 2011 campaign offers the most compelling Chase-era season ever.
2. Five Time denied a sixth crown. The illustrious reign of Jimmie Johnson comes to an end. Though his pair of wins was an off year by Jimmie standards, Johnson hardly slumped. His 14 top fives and 21 top tens were the second highest total in each category for the Sprint Cup, but the competition caught the 48 this time, and made him pay for his few missteps.
3. Wood Bros. catches glimpse of former glory. A pioneer team dating back to the days of Junior Johnson, the Wood Brothers are NASCAR legends and innovators. It had been years since they had seen victory lane until young Trevor Bayne became an unlikely winner at the Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start.
4. Gordon gets milestone wins. With three victories (Phoenix, Pocono and Atlanta), the four time champion not only eclipsed the illustrious trio of Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison to third on the career wins list with 85- trailing only Richard Petty and David Pearson.
5. Busch League behavior. No season is complete without some shenanigans from the Busch brothers. Kyle crossed authorities with a 128 mile per hour joy ride in North Carolina, and then he was busted by the NASCAR brass after an on-track brouhaha with Ron Hornaday in a CWTS event. Brother Kurt once again charmed his crew with his frequent profanity-laced rants, and he also shared a few choice words with pit road reporter Jerry Punch, earning a $50,000 fine.
6. Big wins for the little guys. In a sport dominated by mega teams, it was refreshing not only to see the Wood Brothers win, Richard Petty also saw a day in the sun thanks to Marcos Ambrose. Furniture Row picked up it’s first checkered flag (Regan Smith) at Darlington, and Kasey Kahne piloted his Red Bull rent-a-ride to a win at Phoenix. Paul Menard and David Ragan were also first-time winners in high profile races at Indianapolis and Daytona.
7. The rise of Keselowski. Brad Keselowski demonstrates he’s no one-win wonder by reeling off a trio of victories: Pocono, Bristol and Kansas. Though he entered the Chase as a wild card, the second generation racer fared well enough to finish the 2011 campaign fifth in points.
8. Silly Season draw down. In a sure sign that not all is sunshine and roses, economic woes and changing times are spelling a dizzying array of driver, team and sponsor changes. Crown Royal is leaving, Red Bull is shutting down, the 6 team is in jeopardy, and the 33 is going away, while veterans David Reutimann and Brian Vickers seeking employment.
9. TV ratings up. Though hardly at peak levels, the TV ratings experienced an uptick in 2011. All three networks saw ratings increases and the tight race for the points title drew ESPN to enjoy it’s highest NASCAR viewership ever.
10. Bumpy Cup debut in Kentucky. Anticipation turned to disappointments for thousands of fans at Sparta, as traffic snarls and parking problems plagued the weekend in Kentucky. Officials pledge to study ways to improve conditions, but for some, it may be a case of too little, too late.
11. Jeremy Mayfield. The driver who tested positive for methamphetamine in 2009 made news once again late in 2011 when stolen equipment, missing furniture and drugs turned up on his property. While a few fans still stubbornly proclaim his innocence, numerous others have come away having felt duped by the driver who was once a NASCAR feel good story.
Other articles by Jim McCoy include: