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NASCAR 167 43 NASCAR five best moments of 2011 season 30456038 What a year! What+a+year%21 NASCAR

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was literally one for the ages.

The sport enjoyed a mixture of riveting veterans and surprising newcomers in Victory Lane. The Sprint Cup points championship literally went down to the wire, then ended in a tiebreaker with the driver with the most wins for the year, Tony Stewart, taking the title. New faces took over in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series ranks, highlighting the unique nature of each and the ability of a driver to climb through the ranks based on success at each level. Television ratings were up, tight racing at the finish highlighted a number of races and Jeff Gordon made a little more history.

What more could NASCAR ask for? A quick glance at the season shows a slate of highlights, but which ones were the best? Here’s a look at the top five feel-good moments of the 2011 season.

John Harrelson - Getty Images
NASCAR 167 43 NASCAR five best moments of 2011 season 30453111 Race for it! Race+for+it%21 NASCAR

NASCAR wanted to tighten up the Chase for the Sprint Cup, so it introduced a new points system that separated positions in one-point increments this season. Then it watched as superstars Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart duked it out in an epic Chase. Stewart won four of the first nine Chase races. Edwards was consistently among the best, with only a worst finish of 11th in that stretch. Edwards led Stewart by a mere three points entering the season finale.

Then Stewart took over. He made daring passes. He gambled on pit strategy. He knew he had to win the season finale to win the title — and he did just that. With Edwards on his tail. Edwards finished second and tied with Stewart (pictured) in points, but the tiebreaker (wins) went to Stewart, and NASCAR had not only its most exciting Chase ever but a new three-time champion to tout.

Ethan Miller - Getty Images
NASCAR 167 43 NASCAR five best moments of 2011 season 30453112 Bayne-mania Bayne-mania NASCAR

Before the Daytona 500, Bayne was an extremely likable driver trying to get a foothold in the Sprint Cup ranks. Afterward, he was the newest winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race. That alone would have made for an epic event, but Bayne brought even more to the legendary run. He drove for the Wood Brothers Racing team, one of NASCAR’s most well-respected Cup programs and one planning to run only a limited schedule in 2011. Bayne won a day after turning 20, in his first Cup points race at the track, in his second career Cup start. He did so by holding off veterans at the line in one of NASCAR’s fastest and toughest races. His celebration on the frontstretch remains one of the lasting images of the season and has been firmly imprinted in the minds of fans who were watching at Daytona International Speedway and on television that day.

Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports
NASCAR 167 43 NASCAR five best moments of 2011 season 30455054 On any given day . . . On+any+given+day+.+.+.+ NASCAR

Talk about parity. Drivers of Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas all won. Drivers with years of experience and those relatively new to the sport hoisted trophies. For NASCAR, it was a banner season in which 18 different drivers went to Victory Lane in 36 points races. Among that group were five first-time winners in the series. And, for the most part, they didn’t win small events. Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Paul Menard (second from left) won the Brickyard 400 at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Regan Smith (second from right) stormed to victory in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. David Ragan (right) won the tough restrictor-plate race at Daytona International Speedway in July. And Marcos Ambrose (left) took over on the road course at Watkins Glen International. Overall, it was quite a season to be watching Victory Lane.

Mark J. Rebilas, Sam Sharpe, Bob Donnan, Kevin Liles - USA TODAY Sports
NASCAR 167 43 NASCAR five best moments of 2011 season 30456037 History, again History%2C+again NASCAR

Jeff Gordon has already etched his name among NASCAR’s great. This season he simply took another step up among them. At Atlanta Motor Speedway in September, Gordon (pictured, with NASCAR president Mike Helton) earned his 85th career NASCAR Cup victory. That moved Gordon into sole possession of third place on the all-time NASCAR Cup winners list. He now trails only Richard Petty, with 200 wins, and David Pearson, with 105, in visits to Victory Lane.

Chris Graythen - Getty Images
NASCAR 167 43 NASCAR five best moments of 2011 season 30454240 Young guns Young+guns NASCAR

NASCAR has long worked to promote the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series as ones with their own identities. That was never clearer than in 2011, when young drivers building their careers took over the title races in each. In Nationwide, Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (right), 24, held off veteran Cup driver Elliott Sadler to take his first NASCAR title. On the Truck side, Austin Dillon, 21, took Richard Childress Racing to the top in his No. 3 Truck, besting a field of NASCAR veterans to also earn his first title in the series. These men are the future of NASCAR racing — and brought new fans and excitement to their respective series this season.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR -
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