2011 Had Its ‘Top Moments,’ But History Was Also Made
Already multiple presentations on the “top moments” of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season have been published or broadcast and, quite frankly, I’m inclined to agree with most of them.
I certainly agree with many others that Jeff Gordon’s 85th career victory at Atlanta was memorable. Gordon, the four-time champion, won three times in 2011 and is now in sole possession of third place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.
I won’t argue with those who listed Danica Patrick’s achievement as one of the season’s best moments. Patrick finished fourth at Las Vegas in March to set the record as not only the highest finish recorded by a female driver in Nationwide Series competition, but also as tops among all females in any NASCAR national series event.
Patrick broke the long-standing mark of fifth place set in 1949 by Sara Christian in Heidelberg, Pa.
As you know, many more memorable achievements have been mentioned and I daresay all of them deserve a place on anyone’s list.
But I think I’ll go a little further. In 2011, the accomplishments of many were more than “top moments.”
Because of who they are, what they achieved and where they achieved it, all made the 2011 season unique - and even historical.
Frankly, some things happened this past season that have never happened before in NASCAR’s history.
Patrick’s accomplishment is one of them.
But there are many more. And that’s part of the reason 2011 was a unique season.
Consider Tony Stewart. That he won five races in the Chase – his only five wins of the season, by the way – to come from ninth in points to a championship in just 10 races is worthy, by itself, as a “top moment.”
But what makes it more compelling, and history making, is that Stewart won a championship battle that was unlike any other in NASCAR’s existence.
At the end of the season’s final race at Homestead Stewart and rival Carl Edwards were tied for No. 1 in points at 2,403 apiece.
That was a first in NASCAR and it meant the champ would be crowed via the tiebreaker: the driver with the most wins. That hadn’t happened before, either.
That was Stewart with five – all of them, ironically, earned in the Chase. Edwards had only one victory for the season.
The unprecedented closeness of the championship fight was even more impressive, and unique, by its very nature.
Stewart and Edwards raged mortal combat. Unlike how it has been many times in the past, neither made a mistake to give the title to the other.
They stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out. They finished within one position of each other in three of the last four races – and never out of the top 10.
It was truly a scrap for a championship and not one decided by a twist of fate.
Yes, Stewart’s five victories are memorable. But the very character of the 2011 championship was unlike any other in NASCAR.
First-time winners always carve a niche for themselves in any season. So it was in 2011, but with a couple of notable exceptions.
Perhaps at no other time in NASCAR were there so many first-time winners. But what makes it all so much more unique is not that they won, but where they won.
I daresay few ever heard of Trevor Bayne, the young driver under contract with Jack Roush who was lent to the Wood Brothers for selected Cup races in 2011.
At age 20 years and one day, Bayne led the final six laps to win the Daytona 500 in only his second Cup start. It was the fourth 500 victory for the Woods team and the 600th for Ford.
Bayne isn’t the first surprise Daytona winner. But, unlike so often in the past, he didn’t win because circumstances turned in his favor. He won because he was competitive and raced like a veteran.
At Furniture Row Racing, Regan Smith was thought of as one of those guys competing with a second-tier team who was most likely to run at the rear of any race.
But, as improbable as it was, Smith, who had no wins, top-fives or top-10s in 104 starts, won the venerated Southern 500 at Darlington.
He led the final 11 laps and held off Edwards by 0.198-second to win.
Many considered Paul Menard as the weakest link in the four-car chain of teams at Richard Childress Racing. Feel free to disagree, of course.
But Menard proved, nicely, that he could win. He did so for the first time in his career in the Brickyard 500 at Indianapolis. He outgunned Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, to earn the victory.
Twenty-five-year-old David Ragan earned his way to a ride with Roush and was, essentially, “under development” for a successful Cup career.
He took a huge step in that direction when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July. Before he gained his first career victory, the best Ragan had finished was third, three times.
Four first-time winners would make any season memorable. But 2011 was a bit more so.
The drivers who won – Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard – did so at three of NASCAR’s most prestigious venues and in four of its most distinguished and popular races, the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coke Zero 400 and the Brickyard 400.
I can heartily assure you that it’s never happened before in NASCAR.
It’s a first in a season I thought had more than its share of them.
Which means that while we all got the chance to see more “top moments” in NASCAR, we also had the opportunity to witness history being made.
That does not happen very often.