FOX NASCAR Awards: Driver of the Year
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 who turned in the best overall performance of 2011.
Driver of the Year
Waltrip: When I look at driver of the year, we have to look at the whole year – and I have got to look at Carl Edwards. If we break it down to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 10 races, then I've got to say Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. The most important 10 races of the year are the Chase races, and in the Chase races, it's hands-down Tony Stewart – he won five of those 10 races on his way to dethroning five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. If I have to narrow it down to who's your driver of the year, I'd have to say Tony Stewart, because he won the championship.
McReynolds: Another tough one and more than anything a complete toss-up between our two championship contenders and I’m still debating it, even up to my answer, because I keep weighing all these different things out. I’m going to give it to Carl Edwards for a lot of the same reasons I gave the crew chief to Bob Osborne, just an absolute model of consistency, all but running both full schedules – he only missed a handful of Nationwide Series races – he’s won eight races in the Nationwide Series and his Nationwide record almost looks like his Cup races. He’s run 32 of the 33 races, so he only missed one, the guy has 26 top-10 finishes. So I think stacking everything up, I gave a little bit of a nod toward Carl Edwards on that one.
Hammond: Tony. From the missed opportunities, to maximizing the full effect of what his abilities were in the final 10 races, after saying I’m not too sure this team belongs here, for him to come out on top, I just think was just unbelievable. It really was. And I thought there were several drivers that had an opportunity to step up to the plate, but when it mattered the most, he was able to come out on top.
Jensen: Tony Stewart. An incredible stretch run with three victories in the final four races. Pure old-school racing at its very finest.
Spencer: For the first time in his NASCAR career, Tony Stewart had to don his owner’s hat to motivate not only himself as a driver but his entire team. Stewart rallied his troops from ninth in the standings -- 12 points behind first-place -- and ignited a remarkable run in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that included a record five-win run in the final 10 races.
Cain: Any other year Carl Edwards’ effort easily earns this honor. But as good as Edwards was, Tony Stewart was better when it mattered most and NASCAR benefitted with the most compelling championship outcome in its history. Stewart literally “claimed” this championship in the final race, combining his skill with a will-not-be-denied passion that proves why he will go down as one of the greatest talents the sport has ever seen.
White: No disrespect to Carl Edwards, but Tony Stewart masterminded a powerful championship run. He raced with abandon, pushing the limits of his car and himself in his pursuit of wins. He played the mind games, continually casting himself as the underdog and nettling his opponents every chance he got. And then he simply outdrove the competition, showing that talent and determination can overcome a series of obstacles.
Mondaca: Winning matters. And dislike him all you want, but Kyle Busch is a winner - be it in Sprint Cup (four wins, only one driver had more 2011 wins), Natinowide (eight, tied for the most with Carl Edwards despite starting 13 fewer races) or Truck (six, most in the series). He's far from perfect, but there are few with as much talent behind the wheel as him.
Hembree: Tony Stewart. Spectacular performance in the Chase offsets what otherwise was a mediocre season.