While there have been more memorable moments – Richard Petty’s 200th career win, the incredible 1992 season-finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, five consecutive championships by Jimmie Johnson and the death of racing icon Dale Earnhardt – it would be difficult to find any season that could match the historic storylines of 2011.
It started with Trevor Bayne’s improbable victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 and it ended with Tony Stewart’s unlikely charge in the Chase for the Championship.
And there were few dull moments in between.
Here’s a look back at the most-memorable moments of what proved to be one of NASCAR’s most-memorable seasons.
STEWART WINS TITLE: After going winless during the 26-race regular season, Stewart found a new level he didn’t know existed. When the Chase started, he said he probably didn’t belong there. By the end of the 10-week playoffs, he was wildly confident nobody could beat him.
The Chase started with a win at Chicago and it continued a week later with a win at New Hampshire. Suddenly the driver with no chance had momentum.
He closed out the season with wins at Martinsville, Va., Texas and Homestead, Fla., to tie Carl Edwards in the final standings. His five victories in the playoffs were enough to beat Edwards, 5-1, in the only tiebreaker in NASCAR history.
TWENTY-WON: A day after Bayne turned 20 he won the biggest race of the season for the oldest team in NASCAR, Wood Brothers Racing.
Bayne drove the famed No. 21 Ford to gain experience for an eventual promotion to Roush Fenway Racing.
But he put himself in position to pull the greatest upset in NASCAR history by pushing David Ragan into the lead in the closing laps. When Ragan was penalized for changing lanes too soon during a late-race re-start, Bayne suddenly found himself in the lead.
And once he got there, he never gave it back in the final six laps to become the youngest winner in the race’s history.
The Daytona 500 win remains the only top-10 win in Bayne’s short 18-race Sprint Cup Series career.
For the Wood Brothers, it was the fourth time the team that was part of NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949 won the 500.
GRUBB GETS FIRED: Darian Grubb won five races during the Chase as the crew chief for Stewart – and it earned him the pink slip.
Midway into the playoffs, Stewart told Grubb he wouldn’t be back in 2012. Instead of pouting, Grubb helped Stewart win three of the final four races – and the championship.