(Stewart's amazing run to win the championship capped off NASCAR's greatest season in history)
When the 2011 NASCAR season began I had my doubts about what was ahead.
An off season of transition that led the sanctioning body to make more tweaks to the Chase format and overhaul the entire points distribution system that had been in place for decades had me skeptical at best that NASCAR was in for a steller season.
The change to a more simplified scoring system and format that distributed points on a 43-1 basis per position struck me as gimmicky rather than a move to benefit competition.
Adding in two wild cards to the Chase field based on the number of victories compiled in the regular season seemed more like a gimmick to try and breath life yet again into the controversial championship format than a bona fide idea to generate more interest.
Boy did I turn out to be wrong.
From the minute Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in historic fashion, NASCAR charted a course for a year that would include more drama, excitement and competition than any before.
The 2011 campaign wasn't just one of NASCAR's finest - it was the best of all time.
In terms of story lines there was no shortage of amazing tales to come out of the just completed season, starting rich tout of the gate with Bayne's stirring triumph in the biggest race of the year. Not only did the unheralded driver become the youngest in history to take the checkered flag in "The Great American Race," he did so with a team in the Wood Brothers that has been a part of the sport's literally since its beginning. The perfect melding of old school NASCAR with today kicked off a year that only went into overdrive from there.
Bayne led off a string of first time winners that before was all said and done grew to five - the most since 2002 - and included Regan Smith in the Southern 500 at Darlington, David Ragan taking the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Paul Menard's Brickyard 400 triumph at Indianapolis and Marcos Ambrose prevailing at Watkins Glen.
That was just a tip of the iceberg.
The overall Sprint Cup Series competition level was off the charts with 18 different drivers rolling into victory lane, also the most since 2002 and only one short of an all-time record.
Organizations across the garage area celebrated wins in 2011 including Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Wood Brothers Racing, Team Red Bull and Richard Childress Racing.
The spread of success impressed many long-time participants and owners in the sport who marveled at how intense the competition had become.
"We're working on such a razor's edge today," said Richard Childress, who saw one of his drivers in Kevin Harvick finish third in the final championship race. "I've never seen things as close today as it is with really something like twenty to twenty drivers capable of winning on any given week. There are so many strong teams and organizations out there that when you do beat them and succeed, you know you've really accomplished something."
More numbers back up the Childress assessment. There was a series record average of 27.1 lead changes per race in 2011 and an average of 12.8 leaders per race also the most in NASCAR history.
But it wasn't until NASCAR's edition of the playoffs rolled around, when the Chase for the Sprint Cup began in September, that the real specialness of the season become apparent.
The ten race Chase created drama that was at times off the charts and a compelling on track product from start to finish.
The motorized heavyweight title fight between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards that was finally decided in the electric season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway was what all premier sports events should be like.
Some doubted whether the build-up and at times over the top hype leading up to the finale would live up to the lofty expectations, but in fact the race in many ways exceeded all of it.
Stewart and Edwards tying for the points lead at the checkered flag only to have the championship decided by the number of wins in a tiebreaker is a script that could not have been written any better.
Which is why the 2011 Sprint Cup season will go down as the best in NASCAR history.
One of the beauties of sports is comparing history and events to one another and NASCAR is no different. So where does the 2011 pinnacle season stack up against others over NASCAR's sixty-plus year history?
Here's my view of the Top 10 years in NASCAR racing including competition, championship implications and historic significance since the first green flag was thrown in 1949:
1949 - The year it all started and Red Byron won the very first championship. Byron won two of the season's eight races and beat Lee Petty for the title to send NASCAR hurdling forward on its path toward becoming stock car racing's premiere series.
2001 - A season that was marred by the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 was ironically also a watershed year for the sport and one many believe was the launching pad for NASCAR to join the level of other major league sports. The landmark network television deal with FOX and NBC brought NASCAR to millions of new fans with Jeff Gordon winning his fourth Sprint Cup Series championship.
1967 - Richard Petty won a remarkable 27 races including ten straight to dominate the year and establish his place among the sport's world elite. "The King" and his amazing performance brought attention to NASCAR from outside its somewhat insulated fan base and helped cement the Petty legend.
1972 - The start of the "Modern Era" also welcomed in R.J. Reynolds as series sponsor and the birth of the WInston Cup put NASCAR squarely on the map of big time sports. Suddenly NASCAR was known beyond its Southeastern roots and Bobby Allison won the championship on the strength of his ten victories, beating Petty in the championship race by 123 points.
1981 - Darrell Waltrip burst onto the NASCAR scene in a flash of controversy and brilliance behind the wheel. Waltrip was the first of the new breed of driver to come into the NASCAR world, a combination of talent behind the wheel and personality in front of a camera or microphone. Waltrip edged Allison bu 72 points to take the title.
1998 - Jeff Gordon rewrote the record books in an astonishing season that saw the "Golden Boy" take 13 victories and simply obliterate the competition. Gordon has a four-race winning streak in the summer stretch as well as a pair of back to back victory runs that helped pave the way for what will most certainly be an induction into the Hall of Fame.
2009 - Jimmie Johnson won his fourth straight Sprint Cup title but it didn't come easy by any means. Johnson had to out battle his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for the crown by 41 points. But the year was the first with double file restarts which completely changed the complexion of many races and also was the first season of NASCAR's testing ban that helped level the playing field on track.
2004 - The first year of the Chase for the NEXTEL Cup format saw Kurt Busch win the title in dramatic fashion, hanging on to a slim lead in the season finale at Homestead and dodging a variety of challenges including losing a wheel coming to pit road for a late stop. Busch edged Johnson by a mere eight points for the championship and NASCAR's radical new playoff system got off to a thrilling start.
1992 - Until last week's finale at Homestead, the season ending race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 was at the top of the list. Alan Kulwicki prevailed as the unlikeliest of NASCAR champions, somehow willing his underfunded and independent race team to the top of the heap. Kulwicki led the lost laps and finished second to Bill Elliott in the Atlanta Hooters 500 to cap the title run and prevail in the three man race that also included Davey Allison. The thrilling championship scenario was the finishing touch on a competitive campaign that saw twelve different winners.
2011 - It's hard to imagine how a year can be better than the one that just finished. The number of different winners, first time winners and dramatic race for the championship is for now the gold standard of NASCAR seasons.
The 2012 campaign is only a little more than two months away. It will be interesting indeed to see what NASCAR can do for an encore after this year's effort.
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