Triumph and tragedy dominate 2011
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Usually when I do my annual list of the best and worst moments of the entire year in motorsports, I need some time to contemplate both categories, making sure I get things right.
No need this year. There is no doubt on either one.
This auto racing year ended on the highest of highs, a final race that will go down as one of the most memorable events in NASCAR history. It was the Chase finale NASCAR always wanted, a championship race for the ages.
They will be talking about this one forever, the first-ever tie for the championship in the points standings. But Stewart earned the crown by winning five times in the Chase, a playoff run that guarantees his spot among the best ever to turn a wheel in a race car.
• Worst moment -- Sadly, this also needs no debate. The death of Dan Wheldon in the IndyCar finale at Las Vegas proved the element of danger always is there in auto racing. Hopefully, it will lead to safety changes needed in open wheel racing, including an eventual move to enclosed cockpits.
• Most dignity in defeat -- I've never seen any athlete handle disappointment with more class and poise than Edwards did Sunday night. You always learn more about people in defeat than you do in victory. We all can learn something from Edwards in how he reacted with dignity and honor when the championship slipped away by the narrowest of margins.
• Best checkered-flag diversity -- The Cup series had 18 different winners (the most in nine years) in 36 events, including five first-time winners.
• Best rule change -- Making the final two Chase spots based on victories instead of points. It's part of the reason for so many winners. Drivers were willing to take chances to win races with hopes it would earn them a spot in the Chase.
• Best decision -- NASCAR telling drivers they had to pick a series to run for the title, which meant a real Nationwide driver -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- won the championship for the first time in six years instead of a Cup driver.
• Biggest disappointment for fans -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. going winless again. But look at the bright side, Junior Nation: Your hero made the Chase and finished seventh in the standings, three points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and only 14 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
• Best start to the season -- Trevor Bayne shocking the racing world with his victory in the Daytona 500, taking the famed Wood Brothers team back to Victory Lane in NASCAR's most prestigious event.
• Worst rage -- Kyle Busch's despicable move at Texas to deliberately wreck Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution, pushing Hornaday's truck head-on into the wall. Fortunately, Hornaday was not seriously injured. Hopefully, Busch learned from it and will a better racer in the future.
• Best redemption -- Funny Car driver Matt Hagan winning the NHRA title on the final day, one year after losing it on the final day to John Force.
• Best family moment -- Paul Menard's surprising win in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, the place where his father tried to win many times as an IndyCar team owner.
• Second-best family moment -- Richard Childress watching 21-year-old grandson Austin Dillon win the Camping World Truck Series title in the No. 3 Chevrolet pickup. Dillon will take the No. 3 to the Nationwide Series in 2012.
• Best future -- Both Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty. These young men aren't getting free rides because they happen to be grandsons of Childress. Both of them are talented racers.
Austin became the youngest Trucks champ in winning the title this season. Ty, 19, will race full time in trucks next year, and some people at RCR think he's better than his big brother.
• Best playoff format -- The NHRA Countdown, which again came down to the last day. Both Top Fuel and Funny Car were decided at Pomona in the season finale.
• Most dominant season -- Sebastian Vettel, who has won 11 of 18 Formula One events (with one to go) and easily earned his second consecutive driver's championship. Vettel has earned a top-3 podium finish in 16 races.
• Biggest mess -- The entire Austin debacle over building and hosting an F1 event, which may never happen. Just another Bernie Ecclestone money grab at the expense of na´ve public officials and private investors in Texas.
• Biggest rising star in the NHRA -- Pro Stock racer Vincent Nobile. The talented 19-year-old rookie won three events and was runner-up two other times.
• Most surprising finish -- The final lap of the Indy 500. With the checkered flag in sight, JR Hildebrand slammed the wall exiting Turn 4 while leading the race. Wheldon raced past him before the caution light was displayed and won the event. Little did anyone know at the time it would be Dan's final victory.
• Worst trend -- Pairs racing at the restrictor-plate tracks. It's made for some exciting finishes but has caused too many political games on who pairs up with whom. NASCAR is trying to end it, but drivers know this is the best way to go faster, so it won't be an easy fix.
• Worst traffic jam -- The gridlock for the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Some fans never made it. Some just turned around and went home. Speedway officials were not prepared for the angry fallout and initially downplayed the severity of the problem.
• Best exit -- Nothing like going out on top. After winning his first NHRA championship at age 41, Del Worsham announced he would hang up his helmet. Worsham raced 21 years before winning the 2011 Top Fuel title, his first season back in the nitro dragster after spending 16 years in Funny Car.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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