(Stewart can celebrate being named the CBSSports.com 2011 NASCAR Driver of the Year)
The 2011 NASCAR season is finally now just a memory and thoughts have already shifted to the new year. It may be hard to believe but Daytona is less than 90 days away and before we know it the 2012 campaign will be ready to crank up.
But before we get too far down the road it’s time to reflect back on the season that was and commemorate the highlights (and lowlights) of NASCAR 2011 with our annual CBSSports.com awards. There was much to remember and actually some things to forget over the last year so without further adieu here is our look at the season standouts:
Driver of the Year
It’s hard to imagine a guy turning in a more dynamic performance than Tony Stewart’s drive to a third Sprint Cup Series championship. Smoke himself said he wasn’t even worthy of a Chase berth let alone being considered a championship contender but turned on the afterburners for a sensational playoff run. Stewart basically willed his car to the checkered flag at the Homestead finale to score win number five of the Chase and used it to finally capture the crown as the tiebreaker with Carl Edwards. Sports should be about winning and Stewart proved crossing the finish line first meant the most in capturing the 2011 title.
Race of the Year
There were more than a few memorable outings this past season but it took until the last race of the year for the best one. The heavyweight battle between Stewart and Edwards that played itself out in the Ford 400 at Homestead was NASCAR’s version of “Game 7” and more. All afternoon long the two title contenders went back and forth swapping positions on the race track as well as the standings until Stewart finally muscled his way to the top spot and held off Edwards for the dramatic win. There was also all sorts of three and four-wide racing going on through the field at Homestead that coupled with the dramatic championship story playing it out made it the gold standard of the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
Breakthrough Performance of the Year
Brad Keselowski wasn’t on too many in any of the experts’ lists to win a Sprint Cup Series race in 2011 let along make the Chase. But the Penske Racing driver proved all the doubters wrong by winning three times and racing his way into the playoffs as a wild card entry. Keselowski’s gutsy winning performance at Pocono, when he climbed into his car with a broken ankle and other injuries sustained in a testing crash only days earlier, solidified his place in the sport as a true “Ironman” and in the process helped galvanize the chemistry of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team. Keselowski also evolved into one of NASCAR’s most quotable drivers with his candid remarks and sometimes humorous take on any and every topic. After once being considered overly aggressive and reckless by some, Keselowski established himself as one of NASCAR’s elite in 2011.
Comeback Driver of the Year
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a return to competitiveness in 2011 after a dismal performance the year before that ended in a twenty-first place finish in the standings. Aligned with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt started the year strong and continued to excel in the early portion of the campaign all the while building confidence that was all but completely gone in 2010. Earnhardt returned to the Chase for the first time in three years and was in position to win several times over the course of the entire season. Ultimately he didn’t challenge for the title or end his now more than three year winless drought, but Earnhardt and Letarte gave Junior Nation much to cheer about in their miraculous rebound from mediocrity.
Team of the Year
Roush Fenway Racing put two drivers in the Chase, nearly won the Sprint Cup title with Carl Edwards and did capture the Nationwide Series championship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. After the entire Ford camp hit a speed bump a little more than a year ago, Roush led the charge for the entire stable’s return to competitiveness. Edwards and Matt Kenseth were in the middle of the title picture until the every end and although came up short in giving Roush a sweep of the Cup and Nationwide championships, the organization’s overall effort was stellar in 2011.
Disappointment of the Year
Kyle Busch would most likely like to erase 2011 from his memory bank. That may sound like a strong statement considering Busch won four Sprint Cup Series raced, entered the Chase as the number one seed and added eight Nationwide Series and six Camping World Truck Series victories to his record. But Busch was expected to finally compete for a Sprint Cup championship after years of falling apart once the playoff race began. Sadly that trend continued and then some with Busch stumbling out of the gate once the Chase kicked off and falling out of contention before the midway point. Then came his infamous truck series incident with Ron Hornaday at Texas that resulted in Busch being parked for a Sprint Cup race and began an avalanche of bad publicity as well as controversy. Now Busch faces a pivotal moment in his professional life as he enters the 2012 season. How he responds to the events of this year will forever define Busch’s NASCAR career.
Quote of the Year
"I didn't say that tonight." – Kurt Busch
Now that may not sound like much of a quote until you fill in the back story. After the September Richmond race that set the Chase field and featured a heated battle between Busch and Jimmie Johnson that included a couple of incidents between the two, the Penske racing driver gave his opinion on the turn of events. Busch said it "wasn't something you see from Jimmie Johnson every day. So I know we're in his head. If we're going to race this way, he's got to worry there's 10 other guys in this Chase” in his pot race television interview. However when he was asked to amplify the comment during his media session availability a few minutes later Busch denied making the statement. When he was shown a written transcript of the ESPN appearance with his response in black and white, Busch took the pages from AP reporter Jenna Fryer’s grasp and ripped them in half.
The “Do you Kiss Your Mother with that Mouth?” Award
After an early exit from the Homestead season finale with a transmission issue, Kurt Busch launched into a expletive-laced tirade aimed at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch and his camera crew waiting to be interviewed. The incident was caught on video by a fan standing nearby and instantly became a You Tube sensation landing Busch in hot water with team owner Roger Penske, sponsors Shell/Pennzoil, many fans and NASCAR, which fined him $50,000 the day after Thanksgiving no less.
The “What Are You Thinking?” Award
Despite leading Tony Stewart to five wins during the Chase and his third Sprint Cup Series championship, Darian Grubb was ousted as crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing. Grubb was reportedly told of the change in direction earlier in the playoff schedule but was still able to maintain enough professionalism to help guide Stewart to the dramatic title.
The “Modernizing Tradition” Award
After thirty years as one of the sport’s most popular events, NASCAR decided to move the annual Nationwide Series event at Lucas Oil Raceway to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2012. Citing a need to grow the series and bring the division to a larger stage at IMS, the sanctioning body’s announcement did not sit well with thousands of fans that were outraged the sold out event was being ripped from the schedule as well as the loss of another short track event. The negative fallout was reminiscent of the decision to end the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway years back and move the event to Fontana, a move NASCAR president Mike Helton referred to as “modernizing tradition.”
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