With preseason testing kicking off in Daytona last week and cars finally getting back on track, it has reminded me of all the exciting races there were last year. NASCAR couldn't have asked for a better, more competitive year than what we had. Some of the races, particularly the finishes, stood out more than others, and it wasn't just limited just to the Cup series. To top it off, there were plenty of first time winners, so here is my version of the best ten in the top three series in 2011.
10-Showtime Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, May 7
Regan Smith, on older tires, held off a hard charging Carl Edwards over two restarts to officially claim his first Cup win. Not only that, but the Kyle Busch/Kevin Harvick feud escalated as the laps wound down followed by the well-known confrontation on pit road. Just the fact that this race is so far down the list shows how competitive the season was.
9-Brickyard 400, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, July 31
Paul Menard claimed his first Cup series win by holding off a fast closing Jeff Gordon during a nail-biting final run with most teams wondering if they would have enough fuel. With just under ten laps to go, Paul was passed by Jamie McMurray but retook the lead once his team told him to "go". This race could have made it into the top ten just based off the circumstances and because it is one of the biggest events in the Cup series. But it gets pushed up even higher since there was a first time winner whose family has a lot of history at the 'yard of bricks'.
8-NCWTS NextEra Energy Resources 250, Daytona Int'l Speedway, February 18
Michael Waltrip shot around the outside of Elliott Sadler coming out of turn 4 on the last lap and won his first truck race ten years to the day after his first Daytona 500 win. Understandably, this was an emotional win for Michael and everyone who remembered that day in 2001 when we lost Dale Earnhardt, but even more intrigue was added to this finish by the controversy of half of Michael's spoiler collapsing when he made the pass for the lead. Even Darrell Waltrip, who called him to the win, didn't know what NASCAR would do about that.
7-NNS STP 300, Chicagoland Speedway, June 4
Heading into turn three on the last lap Carl Edwards ran out of fuel and was passed by Justin Allgaier who promptly ran out of fuel exiting turn four. As they coasted to the line, a quickly closing Trevor Bayne in his first race after his illness didn't have quite enough time to catch them which gave Justin his second Nationwide win. No matter what people say about fuel-mileage races, they still produce exciting and nerve-wracking finishes, which are made even better if one of your favorites win. Any race that a full-time, Nationwide-only driver beats a Cup driver is a great one, but this one was even better yet because I was watching from pit road and got my picture with the winner and his trophy.
6-NNS U.S. Cellular 250, Iowa Speedway, August 6
It looked like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had the sweep of races in Iowa in the bag...until his engine blew up in turn 4. He rapidly slowed which looked to give the advantage, but Carl ran over the oil and had nowhere to go except into the back of Ricky, shoving him across the line it what could be the craziest finish of the year. This finish was so exciting because it was so unexpected and different from anything anyone had seen before, and it was just another example of how strong the eventual champion was last year, and how lucky he was.
5-Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway, May 29
A late race restart began with Kevin Harvick in third behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Coming through turn four both Dale Jr. and Denny ran out of fuel, sending Kevin Harvick sailing to his third win of the season. That race rounded out a fantastic day of racing, but ironically it followed the same pattern as the Indy 500 where the National Guard driver lost the race in the last corner.
4-Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, November 20
Tony Stewart used a three wide move on the last restart to jump into second and eventually take the lead to win both the race and the championship with Carl Edwards finishing one spot behind him. What was lacking in a tight, last lap battle was more than made up for by the exciting points battle during the whole race. What could be more exciting than having the championship come down to a tie breaker between who won the most races?
2-Aarons 499, Talladega Superspeedway, April 17
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were behind about three different pairs of cars with one lap left, but maneuvered their way up past their teammates and Clint Bowyer/Kevin Harvick to make it a four wide finish involving eight cars. Teammates played a crucial role in that finish as Dale Jr. and the 'pushers' had to give up their own chance at a win to secure a solid finish.
1-Daytona 500, Daytona Int'l Speedway, February 20
Trevor Bayne's unexpected win in the biggest race of the season is without a question the best of the year. David Ragan's mistake of changing lanes too soon set up Trevor in the lead with Bobby Labonte behind him. There are few people you would want pushing you more than Bobby Labonte on the last lap of the biggest race of a blossoming career. Seeing Trevor's joy and reaction to winning was icing on the cake.
Honorable mentions go to Johnny Sauter's last lap pass and win over Kyle Busch in the April Martinsville Truck race, David Ragan overcoming his mistake in the Daytona 500 to claim his first win at the same track in July, Timothy Peters winning on fuel mileage at Lucas Oil Raceway in July and Trevor Bayne winning his first Nationwide race at Texas in November.
Restrictor plate racing sets up so many exciting races and astonishing finishes, that it is no surprise Daytona and Talladega are the site of three of the top four most exciting finishes of the year. What is a surprise is that Carl Edwards finished second in half of the top ten. He squeezed his way to position behind Trevor at Daytona, was beat by two full time Nationwide drivers in their second career wins and followed Regan Smith across the line in his first win, then would up the season by finishing second to the one guy he needed to beat. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that he also wound up second in the Cup series points. Now we have a new season in front of us, and without a doubt there will be a whole lot more thrilling finishes to get us on the edge of our seats!
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