The 2011 NASCAR season was one to remember; filled with highlights and a dizzying series of unexpected turns that a team of Hollywood scriptwriters could never have imagined. With 18 different winners, five first-time victors and a Chase that produced the first dead-heat tie in the history of the sport, this season set the competitive bar high enough that it may never be equaled, much less cleared.
Here are some of the highlights – and lowlights – of the season just complete.
Biggest Disappointment: Red Bull Racing. NASCAR is different than Formula One. Unfortunately, that fact was lost on Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who hired NASCAR insider Jay Frye to serve as General Manager, then shackled him with a series of decisions that doomed the team to failure. The Austrian Energy Drink magnate hired AJ Allmendinger and Scott Speed to drive his Toyotas; neither of whom had a lick of stock car experience to fall back on. He then bailed out on them when they failed to produce immediately, keeping his team in constant turmoil for years. Only after announcing that he would shutter the team at the end of 2011 did he hire an experienced driver -- Kasey Kahne – who won a race at Phoenix and trailed only Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in Chase performance. Honorable Mention: Kevin Harvick. Inc.’s withdrawal from the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
Best News: Trucks to Rockingham in 2012. “The Rock” is tailor-made for the Tough Trucks of NASCAR, and the April 15th “Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200” is a can’t-miss race for NASCAR fans.
Worst News: No Trucks at Darlington in 2012. Heartbreaking. Simply heartbreaking.
Classiest Loser: Carl Edwards/Ford 400, Homestead Miami Speedway. Moments after losing the 2011 Sprint Cup Series championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, Edwards delivered one of the most gracious concession speeches in the history of this sport, or any other. More important than winning the championship, he said, was conducting himself in a way that would make his young children proud. Mission accomplished, Carl. Honorable Mention: Jimmie Johnson.
Most Self Destructive: The Busch Brothers. Al Qaeda suicide bombers do themselves less damage than the fabulous Busch Brothers. Whether it’s driving a $400,000 sports car 128 mph in a 45 mph zone (Kyle), tearing up a reporter’s notes when she dares to quote you directly (Kurt), intentionally wiping Ron Hornaday out of the Truck Series title chase (Kyle) or M-F’ing a pit reporter for attempting to do his job (Kurt), Al and Gay Busch’s boys consistently managed to lower the bar. They also performed a tandem flame-out in the final 10 races of the season, finishing the 2011 Chase in 11th and 12th place. Coincidence? Perhaps not.
Biggest Puzzler: Darian Grubb. After going winless in the regular season and sneaking into the 2011 Chase as an afterthought, Grubb guided Tony Stewart’s #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet team to a record five victories in the 10-race Chase and a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for the ages. He is now the most successful crew chief ever to be fired for his trouble. Honorable Mention: Gil Martin.
Biggest Upset: Trevor Bayne/Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway. Calling Bayne a dark horse bet to win the 2011 season opener would be an understatement of colossal proportions. He had less experience on the 2-5-mile Daytona high banks than Danica Patrick will have coming into next year’s race, but managed to drive his Wood Brothers Ford all the way to Victory Lane. It was NASCAR’s ultimate Cinderella story, and it set the standard for a year filled with first-time winners. Honorable Mention: Regan Smith/Southern 500, Darlington Raceway.
Biggest Blowhard: Peter DeLorenzo, AutoExtremist.com. In this category, DeLorenzo never fails to disappoint. After incorrectly predicting the imminent withdrawal of at least one automaker from NASCAR in each of the last five years, the self-proclaimed automotive insider changed gears in 2011, predicting that “the 2011 Daytona 500 is likely to be a processional, follow-the-leader exercise that will be as exciting as watching paint dry.” A classic race ensued, with Bayne scoring one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the sport. Honorable Mention: DeLorenzo again, who predicted in January that “unless and until somebody beats the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus/Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut at their own game, these guys are going to win the whole damn deal yet again.” In short, “unless Jimmie loses, he’ll win.”