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What a year it was for NASCAR

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Las Vegas, NV (Sports Network) - The 2011 Sprint Cup Series season was as good as it gets. From Trevor Bayne's stunning win in the Daytona 500 to Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards' hard-fought battle in the championship Chase, this year in NASCAR's premier series couldn't have been scripted any better.

While Stewart is being honored for his third Sprint Cup title this week in Las Vegas, it's time to take a look back at a season that was truly a memorable one.

TIEBREAKER

When NASCAR adopted a newer and simpler 43-1 points system for all three of its national touring series at the beginning of the year, the sanctioning body never imagined the points battle for the Sprint Cup championship would end up in a tiebreaker.

After struggling during the summer months, Stewart never thought he would be the champion. In fact, Stewart doubted whether or not he should have been in the Chase before the playoffs began at Chicagoland. He started the Chase in the ninth seed.

"I would have lost every bet in the world if people would have said, hey, when you got in the Chase, that we were going to win a race or we were going to win five races and win this thing; I would have bet against us," Stewart said.

Tony Stewart won five of the ten Chase races, which set a record.
But things changed dramatically for the driver/owner of the No.14 Chevrolet.

Stewart won five of the ten Chase races, which set a record. He won at Chicagoland and New Hampshire but lost momentum in the playoffs by finishing 25th at Dover and then 15th at Kansas. Stewart rebounded nicely from there, scoring six straight top-10 finishes, including wins at Martinsville, Texas and Homestead.

"I think the turning point for me was the win at Martinsville," he said. "I think that's when I felt like internally myself and the organization we were a contender at that point, and I didn't think anybody should overlook us yet."

Stewart and Edwards ended the season with 2,403 point apiece. But Stewart captured the title by virtue of his five wins for the year compared to only one for Edwards, which came in March at Las Vegas.

"If I look back on this Chase, there's not one thing that I say, man, I wish I'd have done this or I wish I'd have done that," Edwards said. "This whole season has gone very well. I'm truly proud of this season."

NASCAR put emphasis on race wins with its revised scoring format, awarding three bonus points for the victory. It sure paid off for Stewart, who joined NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson and Lee Petty as well as soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductees Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough as those drivers with three championships in the series.

"I feel very flattered and very honored just to be a part of that list," Stewart said. "Every one of those drivers that have won three championships are icons in this sport. I somewhat honestly feel out of place being on that list. At the same time, I feel honored to be in it with them. I feel like it's an episode of Sesame Street when you read that list, 'Which guy doesn't belong and which is not like the others?'

"Those are some of the greatest names in this sport, and it truly feels like an honor to me to be a part of that group with them."

Stewart's other championships came in 2002 and '05.

STREAK ENDS AT FIVE

After winning a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships, the Jimmie Johnson dynasty came to an end this year.

It looked as though Johnson was on track for another title after winning the fall race at Kansas -- his second victory of the season. But his title hopes took a big hit the following race at Charlotte, where he finished 34th after crashing hard into the wall late in the event. Johnson was mathematically eliminated from championship contention after the penultimate race in Phoenix. He ended the year 99 points behind in sixth place.

"It's going to be a lot different not going back [to Las Vegas] as the champion," Johnson said. "In years past going to the banquet and not being the champion, it's worked out to be really the best motivation you could hope for and ask for. Our run was unbelievable winning those five championships."

Johnson finished no worse than fifth in Sprint Cup points from 2002-10.

BAYNE'S DAYTONA 500 VICTORY

One day after turning 20 years old, Bayne pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever in NASCAR when he won the Daytona 500. In just his second Sprint Cup start, Bayne became an overnight sensation not only in the motorsports community but the world of sports as well. He became the youngest winner in the 53-year history of NASCAR's most prestigious race.

Bayne wasn't used to winning a NASCAR race, and it showed when he had to ask for directions to Daytona's victory lane. The confetti fell, but there was no spraying of champagne since he had a whole year to go until he hit the legal drinking age.

"If I tried to put it into words, I wouldn't be doing it any justice, that's for sure," Bayne said after his historic win. "To get this win, it's my first win in NASCAR, period, in any of the top three series, my first Sprint Cup win, our second ever race, I mean, that's setting the standard, I'd say that for sure."

Bayne ran a limited Sprint Cup schedule for Wood Brothers Racing this season, competing in 17 races.

Shortly after suffering an apparent insect bite in April, Bayne was sidelined from racing for more than one month while battling symptoms of nausea, fatigue and impaired vision from what doctors believed to be an "inflammatory condition."

Bayne ended his year on a high note though. He won his first Nationwide Series race one month ago at Texas.

'ROWDY' YEAR

What a year it was for Kyle Busch. After getting married last December, the "rowdy" side of Busch was supposed to disappear. Not so.

Kyle Busch concluded his 2011 Sprint Cup season 12th in the point standings
In May, Busch was placed on probation for four weeks and received a $25,000 fine for his post-race physical altercation with Kevin Harvick at Darlington. His troubles continued later that month when he was cited for driving his sports car at 128 mph in a 45 mph zone near the North Carolina town of Troutman. Busch later pled guilty to the charges, in which he received a $1,000 fine and had his state drivers license revoked for 45 days. Then in June, he was involved in an altercation with team owner Richard Childress following the Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas.

The big one for Busch came last month at Texas, where he deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in the truck race there. One lap after Hornaday bumped into him, Busch chased down the four-time truck champion and punted him into the wall during the caution.

NASCAR parked Busch for the remainder of that event and then suspended him for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at Texas that weekend. He was later fined $50,000 and placed on probation for the remainder of the year.

"I don't think there was any doubt that anybody was wanting me or saying that I needed to change on the racetrack," Busch said. "There's a fact that there's things that go on the racetrack that make you competitive, that give you that spirit, that will to win and some days when a bad decision is made it deters from that. So, obviously there's more behavioral issues than there is competitive issues, and that's what I think we'll build on."

Busch concluded his 2011 Sprint Cup season 12th in the point standings, one spot behind his older brother, Kurt, who received a $50,000 fine from NASCAR last week after making an inappropriate hand gesture and using foul language while waiting to be interviewed by an ESPN reporter.

SPECIAL-K

Brad Keselowski is worthy of this year's most improved driver award.

At the start of the season, no one would have guessed that Keselowski would make the Chase. He sat 22nd in points following the July race at Daytona but went on a tear from there, especially after he suffered a broken left ankle and a sore back in a crash while testing on August 3 at Road Atlanta.

Keselowski's three wins this season -- Kansas, Pocono and Bristol -- helped him earn one of the two wild card seeds. He finished the year fifth in points.

His most memorable moment of the year though came at the start of the season when his older brother, Brian, qualified for the Daytona 500.

"That was a great moment for my family," Keselowski said. "And then moving through the season, winning at Kansas, first win in the Miller Lite car, then Pocono, obviously, to win after getting hurt. Bristol was amazing. I've always dreamed of the night race there, and that's such a special race. You know, the wins always stick out, but getting my brother in the 500 felt like a win."

WINLESS DROUGHT CONTINUES FOR EARNHARDT JR.

To the delight of many NASCAR fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase for the first time in three years. But Earnhardt Jr's winless streak remains. It's been a long time since NASCAR's most popular driver has been in victory lane in Sprint Cup -- 129 races ago to be exact.

Earnhardt Jr. sat third in points after the spring race at Talladega but steadily dropped in the standings from there. He recorded only one top-10 finish in the 12 races prior to the start of the Chase. Earnhardt Jr. began the Chase in the tenth seed. He finished the season seventh in points.

"It has been an up-and-down season, but we hope that we can really improve and have more success going forward," he said.

In September, Earnhardt Jr. extended his contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the end of the 2017 season.

COMPETITION

Just how competitive was the Sprint Cup Series this year?

Look at the stats.

Several major Cup competition records were broken this season. There were an average of 27.1 lead changes and an average of 12.8 leaders per race. A record of 23 events featured a margin of victory under one second, which is the most since NASCAR began using timing and scoring in 1993.

Eighteen different race winners in Cup this season was the most since 2002 and one short of the all-time record. There were the same number of different pole winners as well.

This season also featured five first-time race winners -- Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Darlington), David Ragan (Daytona-2), Paul Menard (Indianapolis) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

It was indeed an unforgettable year for NASCAR.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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