The 2011 season of NASCAR started out with a bang when rookie Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. It ended with an electrifying duel between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards for the championship. Sandwiched in between was one of the most competitive seasons in recent history.
In no particular order, these are a few of my favorite memories of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
1) “Are you kidding me?” Only one day after turning 20 and in only his second Cup start, Trevor Bayne won the coveted Daytona 500 race. He became the youngest driver to ever win NASCAR’s most prestigious race and he did it driving the No. 21 Ford for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team.
2) Sports fans love an underdog and this year we had several drivers who defied the odds. Including Trevor Bayne, there were five first time winners this season.
a. Regan Smith scored his first victory at the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. The win was especially satisfying after suffering a heartbreaking defeat at Talladega in 2008. Although he crossed the finish line first, the win was overturned after it was determined that he had violated the rules by dropping below the yellow line.
But this time was different. As he captured the checkered flag at the famed track, he told his crew, “This is the Southern 500; we’re not supposed to win this thing!”
b. David Ragan was up next as he drove into victory lane at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July. “No better place to do it than Daytona.” Ragan said. “I knew we could do it all along. I feel like I should have done this 100 years ago.”
c. Paul Menard also had his first win this season at a track that has special meaning for him. After the race, his father, John Menard, said, “Paul’s been coming here since we carried him in at three years old. I remember sneaking him into the garage in an engine box because he was too young to be in here. All his life he wanted to race.”
As he drove across the finish line an emotional Menard said, “Dad, this one is for you.”
d. Marcos Ambrose is the fifth of the first time winners in 2011, claiming his first victory at Watkins Glen. Ambrose had come close to a win last season at Infineon Raceway but saw it slip away when he lost the lead after failing to maintain speed.
I’ve sacrificed so much to get here,” he said, “and to finally win here is a dream come true.”
3) Brad Keselowski proved the adage that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. A few days after breaking his ankle during a test session at Road Atlanta, he scored his second win of the season at Pocono.
But the story of what inspired him to persevere is what really makes this a special victory.
Keselowski’s cousin had recently lost a friend who was one of 30 Americans who died when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. After hearing of the tragedy, Keselowski vowed that he would not use a relief driver and would drive the entire race himself.
After winning the race he dedicated the victory to the troops in Afghanistan.
“I might not be feeling great, but those are the guys that are really making sacrifices,” Keselowski said. “Whenever I got in the car and felt like, man, this really hurts, it was good inspiration as to what it takes to ‘man up’ and make it happen.”
4) Jeff Gordon achieved another milestone in his career with his 85th Sprint Cup Series win at Atlanta. It broke a tie and he now stands alone in third place on the all-time wins list. He trails only Richard Petty (200 career wins) and David Pearson (105).
It’s difficult to compare drivers of different eras but there can be no doubt that Gordon is one of the best drivers that this sport has ever seen. And he’s not done yet.
5) The finale at Homestead achieved the impossible. It actually lived up to all the hype preceding the event. Everything fell into place for a fight to the finish. Stewart emerged victorious passing 118 cars along the way and captured his third Sprint Cup championship title.
“If this wasn’t one of the most exciting races to watch from a fan standpoint, you’ve got to go to a doctor immediately,” said Stewart. “I feel like I passed half the state of Florida. This is definitely one of the greatest races of my life.”