(Keselowski's Pocono win driving with a broken ankle helped bring the No. 2 team closer together)
The 2011 Sprint Cup Series season is in the rear view mirror and as always there were several surprises along the way both of the good and bad variety.
Here’s a look at those who exceeded expectations this past season as well as those who would rather erase their 2011 effort from the memory bank:
The Penske Racing driver enjoyed a banner season that will be remembered as his NASCAR coming out party. Not only did Keselowski excel behind the wheel he also became one of the garage area’s “go to” guys, not afraid to speak his mind and always ready to give a candid assessment of any situation. Granted that philosophy got him into hot water recently when NASCAR fined Keselowski $25,000 for his criticism of the new electronic fuel system, but don’t expect the incident to completely change his ways. His winning performance at Pocono driving to victory lane with a broken ankle and other injuries suffered in a testing crash at Road Atlanta only days earlier cemented the cohesiveness of the "Blue Deuce" squad. Keselowski raced his way into the Chase as a wild card with three wins in the regular season as his ticket and although wasn’t able to mount a serious threat for the championship, proved he belongs in future conversations about title contenders.
His storybook win in the Daytona 500 to start the year is the stuff of legends and Bayne kicked down the door of stardom with his stirring win in “The Great American Race.” Unfortunately he was derailed from following his dream by a mysterious illness that knocked Bayne from the sport for nearly three months and set back his development. But once he returned to the full-time Nationwide Series ride with Roush Fenway Racing as well as his limited Cup Series slate for the Wood Brothers, Bayne once again demonstrated why he’s considered one of the brightest young talents in the sport. His first career Nationwide win at Texas was every bit as impressive as the Daytona victory. However Bayne now faces the challenge of the economic pressures of the sport and how that will impact his 2012 plans in both divisions.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This time a year ago Earnhardt Jr.’s Sprint Cup career was in a shambles. He had just completed a miserable 2010 season that saw him finish 21<sup>st</sup> in the point standings and score only three top five finishes all season long. But then team owner Rick Hendrick installed Steve Letarte as Junior’s crew chief in a shake up of the Hendrick Motorsports organization and almost instantly the improvement began. Earnhardt started the season running more competitively than since he first joined Hendrick in 2008 and came very close to finally snapping his three-year winless streak. Although he leveled off later in the campaign, Earnhardt made the Chase and finished seventh in the final standings with four top five and twelve top ten finishes to his credit. More importantly was the new sense of enthusiasm and confidence instilled in Earnhardt and the feeling more success was right around the corner.
This was supposed to be the year that Busch finally broke to the next level of his Sprint Cup career and not only challenge for a championship but win one. He rattled off a series-leading four wins in the regular season and entered the Chase as the number one seed. And then as has been his pattern in past playoff runs things fell apart only this time they did so in spectacular fashion punctuated by Busch’s Camping World Truck Series altercation with Ron Hornaday in Texas. NASCAR parked Busch for the remainder of the weekend, only the third time in more than a decade the sanctioning body sat a driver out of a Cup race for disciplinary actions, and his promising 2011 season ended in a controversial thud. Despite all of his success and more than 100 career wins across NASCAR’s top three divisions, Busch enters next year at a definite crossroads.
His three big wins of 2010 put McMurray near the top of many people’s list of drivers to make the Chase this season and perhaps contend for the title. But the entire Earnhardt Ganassi Racing organization including teammate Juan Pablo Montoya seemed completely off its game this year and McMurray finished 27<sup>th</sup> in the final standings. He had only a pair of top five finishes all season long and looked nowhere near the same driver who won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 the previous campaign.
The expiration date of waiting for Logano to finally fulfill the lofty promise he brought with him to NASCAR’s top series is closing in. After ending the 2010 season on a torrid pace Logano seemed ready to take it up a notch this year and at least punch a ticket into the Chase lineup. But he got off to a bad start and never was able to recover from a series of disappointments and challenges including the Joe Gibbs Racing team’s engine woes. There was some speculation mid-season that JGR was courting free agent Carl Edwards to join the organization and move Logano either to the Nationwide Series or out completely. In the end Edwards stayed at Roush Fenway and Logano remains in the No. 20 ride – for now.
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