NASCAR tells us that the 2011 Sprint Cup season was the most competitive in the series’ history.
Yeah, well, we’ve heard this before. As best I recall, when each past season was completed, the sanctioning body always proclaimed that it was the “best ever” or “one of the best ever” or “filled with highly competitive races” and provided us with random numbers to back up the claims.
Which is the kind of spin NASCAR should put on each season. But then, not anyone paid much attention, especially the cynical media.
However, this season, what NASCAR proclaims should be heeded because – at least in one man’s opinion – what transpired in 2011 may indeed have shaped the most competitive and unique year in the sport’s history.
There are a lot of statistics to support that, which will be listed later. But forget the numbers for now. To me it all boils down to a couple of irrefutable facts.
Tony Stewart won this year’s championship by a tiebreaker over Carl Stewart. Both finished the season with 2,403 points. Stewart was declared the titlist because he had five wins on the season to only one for Edwards.
It was the first time a championship had ever been decided by a tiebreaker – and, to a great extent, that satisfied the demand by many that a driver with the most wins should be champ.
And, as the season came to a close, Stewart and Edwards truly decided the matter between themselves. Over the final three races of the Chase they stood toe-to-toe like two bloodied heavyweight fighters. They exchanged punches and neither fell.
Stewart won at Martinsville and Edwards was second. Edwards finished second at Phoenix and Stewart was third. Stewart won at Homestead for his fifth win of the year and, in response, Edwards did the best he could – he led the most laps but finished second.
Neither driver gave away a title because of poor preparation, a mistake or an unfortunate on-track incident. It was simply man-against-man until the end.
I’d call that great season-ending competition for a championship, the type of which NASCAR and its fans rarely see. And, as said, the result was historical.
But NASCAR points out there was more to the year than just the final weeks of an intense championship season.
There was an average of 27.1 lead changes per race in 2011, the most in Cup competition. There was an average of 12.8 leaders per event, again a record since the series began in 1949.
Records were also set for margin of victory (1.321 seconds) and green-flag passes (131,989).
Eighteen different drivers won races in 2011, one short of the all-time record established in 2202.
But, to me, what is more significant here – and what further makes the 2011 season unique – is who those drivers were and the races they won.
At age 20, Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 and became the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup race.
He won driving a Wood Brothers Ford, which returned the venerable team to victory lane and enhanced its reputation as one of the most successful on the superspeedways. It brought back memories of the glory days with David Pearson.
Regan Smith drove for Furniture Row Racing, a team considered as likely to win as a plow horse in the Kentucky Derby.
But Smith stunned everyone with his victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington. That he won was surprising enough but where he did was even more so.
Darlington is the oldest superspeedway in NASCAR and is considered its toughest and most demanding. To win there is one of the greatest accomplishments in stock car racing.
Smith did just that and now has his name listed alongside those of Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Earnhardt and Gordon.
Hard to imagine but true – the young, upstart Smith is part of NASCAR lore.
David Ragan proved to team owner Jack Roush, and to all of us, that his potential was indeed real when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July to earn the first victory of his career.
Thus, improbably, both Daytona races of 2011 featured first-time winners.
Paul Menard’s family is steeped in racing tradition, much of which includes Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With Richard Childress Racing Menard won the Brickyard 400 in 2011 for his first career Sprint Cup victory – and at the track so much a part of his family’s competitive life.
As unlikely as the victory was it was more so emotionally and, let’s face it, historically. It was Hollywood stuff.
When Marcos Ambrose won at Watkins Glen to claim his first NASCAR victory it wasn’t all that surprising. It was thought all along that if the Australian should win it would be on a road course.
Nevertheless it was, to this point, the culmination of Ambrose’s NASCAR career.
He sacrificed much to make it happen, which included giving up residence in Tasmania to come to the United States, and endure uncertainty and all that comes with it.
The victory has enhanced his formidable reputation in his home country and did as much for NASCAR’s international presence.
The year indeed saw five new winners. But at no other time in NASCAR’s history did they win the races they did in a single season.
Let’s face it, while it’s true many thought Ambrose might break through on a road course, no one – and I mean no one – could predict that Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard won at three of NASCAR’s most storied tracks and in four of its most celebrated races.
The championship battle was intense, riveting and unprecedented. The new winners, and where they won, were historic. The numbers showed us competitive records were established.
The 2011 Sprint Cup season was unique and, to date, the best in NASCAR’s history.
Yeah, we have indeed heard that before. But this time it’s not hype. It is fact.