FOX NASCAR Awards: Comeback of 2011
This week, FOXSports.com will offer its own series of NASCAR awards to close out the 2011 season. In this segment, NASCAR on FOX's Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond, FOXSports.com Senior NASCAR Editor Jorge Mondaca, SPEED Editor in Chief Tom Jensen, FOXSports.com Senior NASCAR writer Lee Spencer, FOXSports.com NASCAR writers Holly Cain and Rea White and SPEED NASCAR writer Mike Hembree weigh in on the most impressive rally of the season.
NASCAR Comeback of the Year
Waltrip: I can look at a lot of different things, but I really think it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. based on how he ran all season and the improvements over the previous year. In 2010, he finished 21st in points and never was a factor in any race. But then fast forward to this season with Steve Letarte as his crew chief, Junior had a shot to win at Charlotte Motor Speedway before running out of fuel on the final lap, had a shot at winning Martinsville but got bumped out of the way, had some top moments and I always said at the end of a year when I didn’t win that as long as I could sit down and say, “Well, we could’ve won this race, we could've won that race if this hadn’t happened or that didn’t happen,” it would offer me some solace and keep me going into the next year.
McReynolds: Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team. To win no races in the first 26 attempts, only have three top-five finishes, and look like he was going to be borderline making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, then to get to the Chase and do what they’ve done, they are the St. Louis Cardinals of NASCAR. It’s not how you get to the playoffs, it’s what you do once you get there. I didn’t have to think very long on that one.
Hammond: I’ve got a tie here. I really do. It’s between Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, because Penske Racing made some corrections and changes after a blow-up of Kurt Busch that made that team so much better and competitive and then both of the team's drivers (Busch and Brad Keselowski) made the Chase because of it. And almost the same way with Stewart-Haas. The year before, Ryan Newman's team didn’t make it and Tony struggled. This year, Newman got in the Chase and Tony was able to come back and win the championship like he did after struggling the year before and then having a bad first part of the year. So I’ve kind of got a toss-up between those two organizations.
Jensen: Jeff Gordon. Yes, he had a bad Chase, but his three victories this season were more than he won in 2008-10 combined.
Spencer: Brad Keselowski is the feel-good story of the year. After crew chief Paul Wolfe led him to the Nationwide Series title in 2010, the pair joined forces on the Sprint Cup tour. Despite crashing out in the Daytona 500, the team pulled together and showed significant growth, particularly during returns visits to tracks. But Keselowski’s ability to come back with a win at Pocono Raceway four days after being airlifted out of Road Atlanta following a practice crash is all you needed to know about the 27-year-old’s resilience. Finishing fifth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after a miserable 25th-place rookie season proved the driver’s staying power.
Cain: For a while this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked like he wasn’t just on his game again, but actually was ready to make a run at the title – breaking into the top three in the standings. Sure, he still hasn’t won a race in three years, but in making his first appearance in the Chase field since 2008 – and finishing seventh overall – his fans can reasonably hope that he isn’t just NASCAR’s most popular driver, but one ready to start living up to his potential.
Mondaca: No question, this award has Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s name written all over it. Sure, other drivers showed more improvement in the standings and were able to win races, but this was a huge year for Junior. Not only did he make the Chase for the first time since 2008, but he also showed the potential to break his 128-race losing streak multiple times this season. Most importantly, though, he looks to have forged a great partnership with crew chief Steve Letarte - and that could lead to even bigger things in 2012.
Hembree: Brad Keselowski, who finished 25th in points in 2010, then rallied from a mid-season injury this year to finish fifth in points.