(NASCAR enjoyed an overall solid season in 2011 with competitive racing, better attendance and higher TV ratings)
We're days away from turning the calendar to 2012 and putting the old year in the rear view mirror.
Some will be celebrating accomplishments this New Year's weekend while others try to forget what took place in the previous twelve months.
Here are the 2011 winners and losers:
After a series of down seasons the sport as a whole came back with a vengeance in 2011. The epic Sprint Cup Series championship battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards was just the icing on the cake. The year saw eighteen different winners and five first time victors as the competition level soared. Off the track NASCAR enjoyed a resurgence at the box office. Although still not generating weekly sellouts, attendance was better than the previous campaign thanks in no small part to several tracks offering attractive ticket packages. Television ratings were also up particularly during the Chase as the NASCAR playoff schedule generated a much larger audience than the 2010 disappointment. Overall big league stock car racing enjoyed a stellar season.
He wrote himself off as a championship contender once before the Chase began and a second time even after winning the first two races of the playoffs. But Stewart roared back in impressive fashion to win five races on the Chase schedule including a performance for the ages in the Homestead season finale to win the race and in turn take the title from Edwards by virtue of a tiebreaker. He became the first owner-driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the crown and although his circumstances are different from how the independent driver operated his business, Stewart's accomplishments in 2011 were still remarkable.
"DECLARE A CHAMPIONSHIP" POLICY
NASCAR decided to do something about Sprint Cup drivers dominating the Nationwide and truck series by employing a new rule mandating drivers pick which championship to compete for in 2011. While Cup drivers still won their share of races in the second and third tier divisions, they were left out of the title picture allowing the spotlight to shine on younger talent in each series. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. edged veteran Elliott Sadler for the Nationwide crown while Austin Dillon brought a championship to grandfather Richard Childress. Victory lane saw its share of Cup visitors but it was refreshing to tell the championship stories with some new names and talent.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
The sport's most popular driver is still winless since 2008 but there was a definite on track improvement for Earnhardt in 2011. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity for Junior Nation, their favorite son was competitive again. Earnhardt was in the hunt for victories on a much more regular basis than his previous three years at Hendrick Motorsports and the addition of new crew chief Steve Letarte to the No. 88 camp produced impressive results. Earnhardt made the Chase and no doubt helped the sport gain additional attention and exposure as his impact on NASCAR is still powerful. Many believe when Junior gets the spotlight so does NASCAR and 2011 proved that adage again.
It wasn't too long ago that Keselowski was considered an overly-aggressive driver and someone who wouldn't make it at NASCAR's top level. But in 2011, the Michigan native came into his own and blossomed into a major force by winning three races and earning his way into the Chase as a wild car entry. Keselowski broke his ankle in an August testing crash at Road Atlanta, only to roar back the following Sunday with a win at Pocono to ignite his charge into the playoffs. Along the way Keselowski also became one of the sport's most colorful, articulate and at times outspoken personalities.
DAVID RAGAN, DAVID REUTIMANN AND BRIAN VICKERS
The trio of drivers found themselves without Sprint Cup rides for 2012, all casualties of the sport's volatile nature these days. Ragan was forced out of Roush Fenway Racing when sponsor UPS pulled its full-time status and although was rumored to be in line for the Penske Racing No. 22 and the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 has yet to find employment. Reutimann was knocked out of Michael Waltrip Racing in favor of veteran Mark Martin's availability, no doubt driven by sponsor Aaron's wanting more bang for the buck. Vickers saw Red Bull Racing go out of business and after a series of late season incidents saw his stock drop on the open market. More than anything the economy and financial pressures of finding sponsorship dictated the fates of this trio of drivers.
His You Tube video depicting Busch's tirade against ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch in the Homestead garage area was the final straw in a season full of behavioral issues and emotional outbursts by the tempestuous driver. He and team owner Roger Penske agreed to "mutually part ways" at season's end and Busch vowed to get a handle on his emotions while finding a way to "put the fun" back in his racing career. Less than a month after his Penske departure, Busch landed at the upstart Phoenix Racing team for 2012, but most believe it will be a holding pen until a better offer comes along. The question remains whether a major organization and more importantly a sponsor will give Busch another chance.
The younger Busch brother had a controversial season of his own that included being only the third driver in more than a decade parked for a Sprint Cup race by NASCAR. In the aftermath of his payback crash of Ron Hornaday under caution during a November truck race at Texas, the sanctioning body sat Busch out of the remaining weekend's races including the Nationwide and Cup events. The ramifications of his actions reportedly have cost Busch the opportunity to run any truck races for his own team in 2012 at the request of team owner Joe Gibbs as well as JGR's sponsors. Despite leading the regular season with four wins and entering the Chase as the number one seed, last season will be remembered for Busch bringing his career to a crossroads because of his behavior.
The Bluegrass State track finally landed a coveted Sprint Cup race after parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. harvested a date from Atlanta Motor Speedway. But it turned out to be a debacle. The race itself was underwhelming but the traffic and parking problems that took place during the day and night were a nightmare. Thousands of fans were stuck in traffic backups for hours while others who arrived on the property, simply had nowhere to park their cars. To add insult to injury, bombastic track owner Bruton Smith defiantly refused to take any blame for the situation or to issue refunds for fans who simply weren't able to use their tickets because of the issues getting to the track. It was a major black eye for the sport and the speedway on a weekend that should have been a crowning moment.
PASTOR JOE NELMS
Speaking of black eyes, NASCAR suffered a big one during a Nationwide stand alone race at Nashville Superspeedway in July. The pre-race invocation by local Pastor Joe Nelms went from colorful to embarrassing with cringe inducing references to the movie "Talladega Nights" and the pastor's "smoking hot wife." In one fell swoop NASCAR got tossed back into the pit of redneck jokes and hillbilly comparisons and the sport was a laughing stock to most of the general media. In fact ESPN's "Sports Nation" program included the incident as one of its 101 "Jeers of the Year."
For more NASCAR news, rumors and analysis, follow @PPistone on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feed
|More NASCAR coverage|