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The Sprint Cup season in review: Wow! Now take a breath before we take off for 2012

   Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards: two of the biggest stories of 2011...but not the only big ones (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   The best stories of NASCAR 2011?
   Well, number one may be easy, Tony Stewart.
   But the rest of 'em, well, let's try to sort out the jumble.
   And there is certainly plenty to consider, in what was one of NASCAR's wildest, most rambunctious seasons in many a year.

   After all, things got so wild and crazy at times that even cool-hand Matt Kenseth got carried away, all but giving away a shot at the title when his emotions got a bit too hot at Martinsville (maybe one of the zaniest races of the season).
   -- Surprise winners Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Ragan Smith in Darlington's Southern 500, Paul Menard in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen.

   -- Brad Keselowski coming of age, challenging for the title right down to the final weeks, winning at Kansas, Bristol, and Pocono. A downright brilliant season for the 27-year-old (and even enhanced perhaps by that misguided $50,000 NASCAR penalty for speaking his mind about the planned engine switch to fuel injection).

   -- Denny Hamlin's slump. A year after nearly winning the Sprint Cup championship, Hamlin was a no-show too many weeks, never catching fire, winning only once, at Michigan in June. And at the end of the season team owner Joe Gibbs released veteran crew chief Mike Ford after six highly successful seasons with Hamlin, hiring the just-fired Darian Grubb.

   -- The strange Toyota slump. Except for Kyle Busch, Toyota had little to boast about. Maybe its engineers are right when they point out the Toyota engine is now the oldest engine design on the tour.
   Or was it a Joe Gibbs slump....engine problems plagued the Gibbs camp, and Mark Cronquist, the ace engine man, hasn't been seen in quite a while. Joey Logano never really got going, Hamlin slumped, and Busch imploded....
   Can Michael Waltrip, now five years into this thing as a team owner, get his operation in higher gear, for Toyota? He's restocked, with strong driver Clint Bowyer and veteran engineer Scott Miller, both from the Richard Childress Chevy camp, and veteran driver Mark Martin.  For Waltrip, after so many seasons of relative mediocrity it's time to perform, past time.


   The best all-around team in NASCAR in 2011, by far: Carl Edwards (R) and crew chief Bob Osborne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  -- The sad demise of Team Red Bull's two Cup teams, when the sponsor-and-owner decides to withdraw from the sport. Kasey Kahne at least had some place to land, replacing Mark Martin at Rick Hendrick's. But Brian Vickers appears to still be looking.

   -- The continuing loss of major sponsorships -- UPS, Aflac and others -- which forced team owners Richard Childress and Jack Roush to cut teams and crewmen and drivers. David Ragan, from the Roush camp, for one.
   Sponsorship issues bedeviled others too, like one of the sport's few remaining real independents, Robby Gordon

   -- The sluggish performances by Chip Ganassi teams, drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray. If Montoya is one of the world's best road racers, from his years in Formula 1, why has he been so inconsistent? And how did McMurray go from home run hitter in 2010 to also-ran?

   -- The erratic performances of Childress' four teams, and that curious round of shakeups in the Childress camp, with even Kevin Harvick demanding a new crew and crew chief for 2012, despite making the playoffs the last two years and coming within sight of a championship both times. And how and why didn't Childress come to terms for 2012 with Clint Bowyer? Did Childress make a mistake in moving new crew chief Luke Lambert from Jeff Burton's pit box? Why did Childress really split with veteran crew chief Todd Berrier? Is all really swell in the Childress camp?


    Tony Stewart's Texas surprise (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Another weak, if improving, season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The sport's most popular is still looking for a decent season, and he hasn't really had one since 2004. Now he's 37. The year, with new crew chief Steve Letarte, started well enough, and Earnhardt had shots to win some races. He did make the playoffs, but after that third at Chicago in September he just faded.

   All that, yes.
   But certainly the travails of the Busch brothers over their tumultuous year was a really big story, part of their continuing saga, if you will.
   Both burned out in the playoffs. But they, each in his own way, put on quite a show during the season.
  -- Kyle Busch was first up, at Phoenix with that run-in with Carl Edwards that left Edwards vowing he owed him one.
   Kyle continued to be a lightning rod throughout the year, notably at Darlington in May's Southern 500 in that flammable run-in with Kevin Harvick, which eventually led to, after some bumping in a race at Kansas, an unanticipated post-race garage area showdown with Harvick's team owner, Richard Childress....whose pre-punch line of 'Hold my watch' was incandescent.
   However that was only prelude to the November Texas run-in with Ron Hornaday -- who was driving for Harvick and battling for the Truck championship. Kyle Busch, one of the Truck tour's biggest winners and top stars in recent years, though running only part-time, took offense early at an aggressive pass by Hornaday and took his measure of revenge under caution. It might not have been as dramatic as that Cale Yarborough-Donnie Allison 'If I can't win, I won't let you win' move at Daytona back when, but it was just as incendiary.
   And NASCAR 'parked' Kyle Busch for the rest of the weekend, including Sunday's featured Texas 500.

    The victory in Las Vegas, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards rumbling up The Strip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  For Kyle Busch it was yet another playoff collapse, in something that has become an aggravating signature: despite rolling through the regular seasons for so many years now winning frequently, Kyle has still been unable to mount a championship run. 
   Kyle, Team Toyota's biggest star, finished the regular season, the first 26 races from February through September, atop the standings, tied ironically with Harvick. He had kept his cool throughout all those angry run-ins, displaying a new face.
   However Kyle, apparently playing it more cautiously in the playoffs, fell behind as Stewart surprisingly surged. And even before the Texas meltdown, he was all but out of the title hunt. And he went to Las Vegas, his hometown, for the annual post-season banquet as just a wallflower, last in the 12-man standings.
   -- Older brother Kurt Busch didn't let his kid brother upstage him, though. The sport's champion in 2004, Kurt opened this season raggedly. And he eventually let loose with a verbal barrage of heated criticism on the radio during the May Richmond race, complaining about his cars and the technology his team was using. That prompted Dodge team owner Roger Penske to make some big changes.
   And Kurt came back -- with another surprise in this season of many -- to win Sonoma, the tortuous road course, and a place not figured to be a strongpoint for him.
   While Kurt's younger teammate, Brad Keselowski (who only last year was one of the tour's most controversial), wound up doing a more effective and consistent job with the redesigned equipment, Kurt was still solid in the championship hunt heading to Kansas in October, after his victory at Dover.
     But Kansas was wacky, and things began going downhill quickly for Kurt when the next week at Charlotte word leaked out that his long-suffering crew chief Steve Addington would be leaving at the end of the season. Kurt Busch began melting down at that, and after that early-out in the Homestead finale, when his transmission broke (and pieces went through Stewart's grill, nearly derailing his title train), Busch made some obscene gestures which were caught on camera, and Busch back in the garage had an ugly, obscenity-laced run-in with veteran journalist Dr. Jerry Punch, caught on a fan's YouTube video. Kurt finished the season 11th in the standings.
      After all that Penske decided it was time for Kurt Busch to move on, and the two split....an announcement held off until after the Vegas banquet.  The Penske-Busch split is likely very costly for Busch, since Shell sponsorship is considered one of the best in the business.
      That, and all the baggage Kurt Busch already carries, has some wondering just where he'll be able to land for 2012. With any renewed Best Buy sponsorship still seeming up in the air, the Richard Petty Ford team has express interest in Kurt.
      But that's just one question of many still hanging in the air as Christmas, and the new NASCAR season, approach.


   Carl Edwards: classy in defeat. Maybe 2012 will finally be that magical season where it all comes together (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




2011 review

Wow!!! It must have been an awesome year. A guy becomes 3rd on the all-time win list with 85 wins, a feat that might not be eclipsed for decades, and he doesn't even get a mention.
That just shows how monumental 2011 must have been.

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