NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup started with 12 drivers on relatively even footing. It didn’t take long for attrition to set in, though, and drivers and teams started to fall by the wayside. By the season finale, only two drivers remained in contention for the title. What happened along the way? And how did the champion rise above the crowd? Here’s a look at each contender’s defining moment of the Chase.
The Chase certainly didn’t unfold as Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team expected or hoped. Still, the truly defining moment came at Texas Motor Speedway. Chase key: Texas Motor Speedway Kyle Busch was seventh in the standings and looking to move into the top five in the standings entering the race weekend. But he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and was subsequently parked for the rest of the weekend. That meant he had to sit out the Sprint Cup race entirely.
At one point, Kurt Busch looked to be ranking among the top contenders for the 2011 title, but a series of setbacks pushed him out of contention quickly. Chase key: Talladega Superspeedway Kurt Busch's Chase hopes pretty much came to an end at Talladega. He was caught up in a crash on Lap 173, having nowhere to go as Bobby Labonte spun across in front of his car. Busch finished 36th in the race.
Newman rallied well in the closing races of the Chase, but unfortunately he had a lot of ground to make up on the drivers in the top 10. Chase key: Double hit Newman's hopes took a major blow early when he suffered back-to-back setbacks early in the Chase. He earned the pole position at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and set a hot pace early. He then fell back and had to pit with five laps to go to surrender significant position and finish 25th as his teammate, Stewart, won. A week later at Dover International Speedway, Newman again faltered and finished 23rd, dropping him well out of contention.
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew finished as the series runner-up in 2010 and were looking to gain more ground this season. The Chase just did not go well for the team, though. Chase key: Chicagoland Speedway Hamlin entered the Chase in the final slot and remained there after the opening race. The key moment for him came in the Chase opener at Chicagoland. Hamlin thought he had a tire vibration after a pit stop, losing a lap while making an additional pit stop. Then he had a left front tire issue with 45 laps to go and finished 31st. He left the race deep in the standings.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver entered the Chase with an opportunity to win the title and as one of the favorites. But things went awry quickly for the driver. Chase key: Kansas Speedway Gordon had not enjoyed a stellar run in the Chase-opening race, finishing 24th. But he still had plenty of time to make up some ground. Until Kansas. Gordon was in position to rally back into championship contention when his engine failed with a handful of laps remaining in the race. That relegated Gordon to 34th in the race, and 10th in the standings. He never truly rallied from the setback.
Getty Images for NASCARTodd Warshaw
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports team returned to the Chase this season but struggled to be a factor in it. Chase key: Inconsistency Earnhardt and his team just couldn't get a solid run going in the Chase, primarily because they couldn't put together a string of top finishes. The driver earned three top-10 finishes in the Chase but also tallied three finishes of 24th or worse. That lack of consistency doomed his title hopes early.
Johnson's five-year hold on the NASCAR championship ended this season after he endured an uncharacteristic series of setbacks in the Chase. Johnson closed the year with the fewest wins in a season (two) he has had since beginning his Cup career. Chase key: Charlotte Motor Speedway Johnson was 11th on Lap 295 after pitting during the caution period for four tires. Johnson was battling Ryan Newman for position when he lost control and slammed into the wall on Lap 317. Johnson took a hard hit but was able to walk away. He destroyed the front of his car, though, and finished 34th.
Keselowski and his Penske Racing team were the surprises of the 2011 Chase field, turning in a solid effort to stay among the front-runners throughout the 10-race showdown. Chase key: Texas Motor Speedway Keselowski sustained damage to his car when he backed into Denny Hamlin trying to get out of his pit stop. Keslowski lost significant ground because of that incident, then more when he pitted on Lap 328 of the 334. Keselowski finished 24th in the race, his worst of the Chase.
Kenseth raced to second in the standings and looked on track to set up a showdown with Carl Edwards for a Roush Fenway Racing title battle before a couple of crucial setbacks cost him needed position. Chase key: Brian Vickers More than any other driver, Kenseth can point to one thing as unsettling his Chase hopes. He was second in the standings and running well at Martinsville Speedway when he was punted by Vickers after some contact between the pair. Kenseth finished 31st in that race and dropped to fifth in the standings. He could have regained some of that lost ground at Phoenix but spun there after contact from Vickers once more and finished 34th.
Harvick was on the edge of title contention throughout the Chase and wasn't eliminated until the penultimate race, at Phoenix International Raceway. Chase key: Talladega Superspeedway Harvick's car sustained significant damage during a crash on Lap 104 that started when AJ Allmendinger slipped off the front of teammate Marcos Ambrose and hit three other racing tandems. Harvick returned to the race but pitted just as the field took the green flag to pull out the fenders because he had smoke in the car. He lost several laps pitting for repairs throughout the remainder of the race, finishing 32nd.
Edwards had a three-point lead entering the season finale, in which he led the most laps of any driver, but he finished second in the race to Tony Stewart. The drivers finished in a tie in the final points standings, but Edwards lost the championship in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, who had five wins over the course of the season compared to one for Edwards. Chase key: Homestead-Miami Speedway Edwards might be haunted by this race for a long time. He led the most laps and drove aggressively throughout the event. He appeared to have the best car but fell behind Stewart after a pit sequence and finished second. And that cost him the points championship.
Stewart was calm and relaxed entering the season finale, pointing out that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain with his performance at Homestead. Then he backed that up with a championship run. Chase key: Aggressive driving Stewart said he would go all-out for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He said he had to win the race to take the title. Then he did just that in a gutty run that included daring passes, a gamble on strategy and just plain talented driving. Stewart snared an amazing fifth win in the Chase with his victory in the season finale — and took his third Cup championship in the process.