FOX NASCAR Awards: Surprise 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 drivers who shocked fans and competitors this season.
Surprise of the Year
Waltrip: There were plenty of these. Denny Hamlin came off a great 2010 season where he almost won the championship, but it just never went right for him as the No. 11 team never got on track. The team got a win, but they struggled all year long. For a guy that won eight races the year before to just win one and not be a factor in the title fight is a big disappointment. Quite honestly, the whole Joe Gibbs Racing team, other than Kyle Busch and the success he had, was surprising. The engine problems they continually had, the problems they had with Busch, the way Hamlin ran, the constant of Joey Logano not being competitive and he and his crew chief Greg Zipadelli not getting along — I know Gibbs couldn’t wait for this year to be over with.
McReynolds: I’d have to say Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe from the No. 2 Penske Racing team. Brad had a very dismal first year, his first full-time season last year. And the first 10-12 races really didn’t start a whole lot better off this year, then they won that race at Kansas Speedway and it was game on. I know they faltered a little bit in the Chase, but to win three races this year and make the Chase, I don’t know that any of us saw that coming when we rolled into Daytona or, honestly, when we were a fourth of the way through the season this year.
Hammond: The 2011 season. This entire year has just been one surprise after another. From the very beginning, from Trevor Bayne to Marcos Ambrose to Regan Smith. You go down the list of guys that won races, people that you felt like were going to be competitive that weren’t, guys who wound up winning championships that shouldn’t have; this whole year has been nothing but surprises and I had to look at the whole year that way. I just don’t see one moment – it seemed like every time you turned around there was a surprise of something. That doesn’t normally happen. Some of them were good surprises, some of them were bad surprises, but still, surprises.
Jensen: Southern 500. Single-car teams never win anymore. Underdogs never win at Darlington Raceway. You can’t base a race team in Denver. Oh, yeah, and bumblebees can’t fly. Congrats, Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing.
Spencer: Breakout wins by drivers. Between rookie Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 to return the storied Wood Brothers to Victory Lane, Regan Smith holding off Carl Edwards to win the Southern 500, and Paul Menard’s unforeseen Brickyard 400 blast, each surprise added to the remarkable season that saw 18 different drivers win in the 36 total races.
Cain: Brad Keselowski wouldn’t consider it a surprise that he finished fifth in the championship. Others, however, might have underestimated the 2010 Nationwide Series champ in his second full Sprint Cup season. Only Tony Stewart (5) and Kyle Busch (4) had more victories (3) than the 27-year-old Michigan native. None of the wins were more impressive than the summer trip to Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway only five days after he broke his left ankle in a horrible crash while testing his car. Imagine the possibilities when Keselowski is completely healthy.
White: Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe spent the early segment of the season getting used to one another and the series – then ignited in the summer months. After breaking his ankle in a crash while testing at Road America, Keselowski went on a tear. He already had one win for the season, but added two more, broke into the Chase, continued to be consistent and finished fifth in the standings.
Mondaca: Brad Keselowski definitely had a breakout season, but nobody surprised the NASCAR world as much as Trevor Bayne did by winning the Daytona 500. Sure, the Great American Race has had it's share of unknown winners, but Bayne's win was definitely no fluke as he showed he could compete with the best throughout Speedweeks in February. Throw in the fact that it was only his second career Cup start, and that it came the day after his 20th birthday, and you can see that all the ingredients are there for the biggest surprise of the 2011 season.
Hembree: Paul Menard winning the Brickyard 400. Nice, underappreciated guy, great car, big story as he carries his dad, a long-time Indy “resident,” to Victory Lane.