It never ceases to amaze, but NASCAR has an uncanny knack for delivering even when expectations are at their highest. The championship finale, Sunday's Ford 400, was a hotly contested race that came down, for the victory no less, between the two best drivers over not only the course of the race, but the season as well. The weekend was pitched as a battle royale between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, and throughout the race it seemed as though every other driver sat back and watched the two contenders duke it out as well.
Interspersed between the show Stewart and Edwards were delivering, Mother Nature felt the need to get in on the action. Rain stopped the running on multiple occasions and threw all types of headaches at crew chiefs trying to deliver fuel mileage and great handling to their drivers. The two Cup combatants battled back and forth, with Stewart working his way backward and forward throughout the distance as Edwards held station at front most of the night.
In the end, the two finished nose to tail, with Stewart delivering one of the most impressive drives in NASCAR history. He was as low as 40th and held on to a shrinking lead in the final 40 laps. Statistics show that Stewart passed 76 cars en route to the victory, earning his third Sprint Cup championship. It was clearly a masterful performance, and Stewart is certainly worth the Tiffany-designed Sprint Cup trophy awarded to the champion.
Tony Stewart - An average finish of 4.9 in the Chase races of 2011 helped deliver Stewart his third Cup title. Stewart scored the best average finish of any driver in Chase history, and deservedly takes home the trophy for winning Sprint Cup, as well as the Ford 400. The first championship winning owner-driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, the only notch on the bedpost Stewart might have left to carve is a victory at the Daytona 500. He will have that shot again in February. Stewart will probably go down in history as one of NASCAR's best drivers, and he still looks to be in his prime. Watch out for 2012.
Carl Edwards - Just one win was all that Edwards needed to put him in position to battle for the season championship. Consistency and the new point system helped him demonstrate that he was one of the most consistent drivers this series has to offer. When all was said and done, only wins were what stood between him and his first Sprint Cup. Edwards can only do better in 2012 by finding Victory Lane more often than he did in 2011. He knows that is what it will take, and with the tenacity inherent in his genes, Edwards likely will lose a lot of sleep working over winter to accomplish that task. Despite Stewart taking the Cup, Edwards may be the most likely to outperform expectations next season.
Kevin Harvick - The 2011 season should go down as one of Harvick's better years. He scored four wins, made the Chase, but was ultimately outshone by Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Looking across the season, Harvick was one of the more consistent finishers, and he always seemed to surface at the front of the field as the laps wound down. This team has learned how to work together, and Harvick's seemingly relentless beatings of the pit crew over the radio ultimately delivered results. The No. 29 crew is one of the fastest in the series, and often gives Harvick the track position he needs to capitalize on his equipment. This band of warriors will assess the season, fix what went wrong and improve on what went right for next year.
Kyle Busch - The 2011 season featured the best and the worst of Busch. He bagged four wins, qualified for the Chase, but also showed some serious regression in his efforts to mature. No one can argue that Busch is one of the fastest drivers on the circuit, and could win on any given weekend, but many would argue whether he has the maturity it takes to win a championship. By intentionally wrecking another competitor in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, he effectively soured what otherwise would have been a turnaround season. Commentators and critics hailed Busch's seeming advancement in level-headedness, but it all came to naught in one ill-advised action. Expect Busch to learn from his missteps this year and be back in force in 2012.
Brad Keselowski - Keselowski symbolically came of age in 2012. He picked up three wins, which is one more than his elder teammate Kurt Busch. Keselowski also made the Chase and even managed to finish in the top five in points when the season closed. Keselowski is clearly a talented driver and outshone both teammate Busch and former Penske driver Ryan Newman this year. Keselowski will only look to improve in 2012, and that could be a scary thought for the competition. With 10 top-10s before this season's finale, Keselowski could easily find his place in the Chase next year by just maintaining his current form. He is a driver who is learning how to score top finishes consistently. With the full faith and backing of the Penske NASCAR organization, that is a formidable force.
Kasey Kahne - In what could have been a disaster, Kahne signed with Red Bull for just one season knowing he would be heading to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. By year's end Red Bull announced it was exiting the sport, but Kahne managed to chalk up a victory for the team to hang its hat on. Kahne has been a very fast driver for every team for which he has driven. He started with Evernham, and stayed with the team through its various incarnations, winning 11 races. Just one season with Red Bull saw him notch another victory, and there is no telling how many he will collect with Hendrick. Mark Martin won a number of races, and nearly a championship, in the car Kahne will take over, and that is a sobering thought when contemplating Kahne's Hendrick future.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer just missed the Chase in 2011. He entered the season with Richard Childress Racing and picked up what would be his final win for the team that brought him into the Sprint Cup Series. Bowyer, next year, heads to Michael Waltrip Racing. This team has won races with David Reutimann at the wheel, but has struggled to climb the learning curve. Martin Truex Jr. joined the team, and seemed to have a dip in form since, though recently has started putting together some stronger finishes with three top-10s in the last five races leading up to the season finale in Miami. Bowyer has his work cut out for him in 2011, but MWR is progressing. The relative performance from Toyota's 2012 engines will have a heavy impact on Bowyer's prospects next season.
Jeff Gordon - It is hard to think of Gordon not being a preseason favorite to win a title. He tallied three wins this season, but has only scored four in the last four years. Three victories show that Gordon can still compete with the best, but his championship days might be over. He will be the eldest driver in the Hendrick stable, after Mark Martin leaves the team for a part-time effort to close out his career. The rise, and subsequent dominance, of Jimmie Johnson weighed heavily on Gordon's psyche the last five seasons, which might have stolen some of Gordon's intensity on the track. Make no mistake, Gordon will win many more races, but can he truly be considered a title favorite?
David Ragan - Too little too late put Ragan in a position where he is without a full-time Sprint Cup ride as the season ends. He finally took a step in repaying Roush's investment in him with a victory in the Coke Zero 400. He also notched three other top-fives and eight total top-10s this year, but his inability to consistently score top results could cost him his job. The flashes of speed and brilliance that Ragan showed in his rookie season faded in his sophomore year. That could have been chalked up to a sophomore jinx, but Ragan continued to disappoint in the following seasons as well. We don't know where Ragan will be driving next year, but it won't be with Roush.
David Reutimann - From a leader of the team with two victories to his credit to a man not knowing if he would be driving next season, Reutimann has seen the best and the worst NASCAR has to offer. Next season will be one of questions for Reutimann. He clearly made strides in his time with Michael Waltrip Racing, both for the team and himself, but it wasn't enough to stay in the seat. Reutimann is a solid driver, but not one who has shown the spark required to nab one of the top seats in the series. Most likely we'll see Reutimann in either a part-time effort, or a mid-field squad without as much to offer its driver as Reutimann has to offer the team.
Danica Patrick - Most of the media focus of 2012 will be focused on the arrival of Patrick to the Sprint Cup. This is a driver who never won in Toyota Atlantics, yet found her way to IndyCar with consistent top finishes. She won a lone IndyCar race by fuel mileage, and can sure wheel a car, but we've seen the greatest of great open-wheel drivers not cut the mustard in the heavy tin tops of the Sprint Cup. She owns some top finishes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and that is certainly an indicator of ability, but Sprint Cup is a much more competitive series. The races are long and a poor decision at any point, or any mistake behind the wheel, can ruin the entire effort. Patrick will have to look to 2012 as a learning experience.
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