We knew the 2011 NASCAR season was going to be a different one in January. At the preseason media tour, NASCAR announced that for the first time since 1975 the way NASCAR determines its champions would change. No longer would drivers be allowed to compete for more than one title, instead they would have to determine which series they would compete for points in. The Chase itself was tweaked with the final two spots going to wildcard drivers.
There were other moves; Kasey Kahne had joined Red Bull, while Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch swapped rides at Penske Racing and NASCAR was going green, switching to Ethanol to fuel its racecars.
The points change was the biggest impact. No longer would huge point leads be possible, instead race winners get three bonus points along with 43 points. The points then graduate down to one point for 43rd place. Bonus points are now awarded for leading a lap, leading the most laps, and winning.
So how did the changes work out?
Record breaking that’s how.
With more emphasis on winning, the field delivered. In the Sprint Cup series there was an average of 27.1 lead changes per race, the most in the history of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. There was also an average of 12.8 leaders per event, also the highest average since the series’ inaugural year of 1949. Add to that an average margin of victory of 1.321, and a record 23 races that featured an MOV less than one second. That’s the most since the inception of timing and scoring in 1993.
What NASCAR and its fans got were moments that will be remembered for years to come. Like Trevor Bayne’s storybook win in the season opening Daytona 500 with the legendary Wood Brothers. Bayne was one of five first time winners that included Regan Smith (Darlington), David Ragan (Daytona in July), Paul Menard (Indianapolis) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).
In 2011, 18 different drivers visited Victory Lane, the most since 2002 and one short of the all-time record.
Not everything happened on the track. NASCAR also had bad boys Kyle and Kurt Busch, both of whom ran afoul of the sport. Kyle was busted for speeding in North Carolina and had his license suspended, he was then parked at Texas in the fall after taking out Ron Hornaday. Older brother Kurt had troubles of his own getting nailed for giving a one finger salute to officials twice, confronting reporters at Richmond and was caught by a fan cussing out ESPN reporter Jerry Punch during the final race at Homestead.
David Reutimann was shown the door at Michael Waltrip Racing to make room for former Richard Childress Racing driver Clint Bowyer and as the season ended, the future of Red Bull Racing was still very much in doubt.
TV ratings were up, more seats were filled at the tracks and there was more buzz between races then ever before.
Everything that happened during the regular season though were only tidbits leading up to the Chase that started after Richmond. Tony Stewart came into the Chase proclaiming himself nothing more than filler material. He then proceeded on a tear, winning the first two races of the Chase.
Others soon fell by the wayside and the final races in the Chase became a two driver show.
The final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway came down to Stewart and Carl Edwards. Edwards led by three points heading into the final race of the season. Edwards took the pole and was on top of the practice charts while Stewart seemed to struggle.
That final race proved to be nothing short of epic as there were a track-record 26 lead changes. Twice Stewart fell outside the top ten, but made 118 green flag passes and won for the fifth time in the Chase (another record). He beat Edwards who finished a close second. It was an event that left doubt as to the final outcome of the race and left the title wide open until the checkered flag fell. In the end NASCAR had its first ever season ending tie, with Stewart winning his third title by virtue of wins.
It was the perfect ending to one of the best seasons in NASCAR history and left fans and many in the sport wanting more. That’s just what they will get when the green flag falls for the 2012 NASCAR season in February at Daytona.
Breaking News: Addington named crew chief for Tony Stewart
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