NASCAR's hope when it revised its point structure for the 2011 season was that it would fuel one of the most extraordinary seasons in the sport's history. With a single race weekend remaining, their mission has effectively been accomplished.
Of course, the current biggest story is that only three points - translating to about 13 points under the old points structure - separate Carl Edward and Tony Stewart heading into Sunday's Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. That is the smallest margin in the eight-year history of the Chase and the third lowest since NASCARwent to a position-based system in 1975. Adjusted to the pre-2011 system, it is fully conceivable that Edwards and Stewart could eclipse the record for smallest final margin between a champion and a runner-up. Only eight markers seperated Jimmie Johnson from beating Kurt Busch in the inaugural Chase of 2004.
The title fight is also rather extraordinary in that Johnson is a non-factor entering the final race. Not since 2003 - his sophomore season - has the five-time defending champ been mathematically eliminated from contention before the last race.
Who would have thought that neither Johnson, nor Denny Hamlin - who led the series with nine wins and was the point leader heading into last year's season finale - would come close to this year's championship? The pair have combined for only three wins. Hamlin has had a miserable season in spite of making his sixth Chase in as many seasons in the series, while Johnson seemed destined to contend for the title before a vicious accident at Charlotte in October effectively ended his title bid.
While those two were struggling, Brad Keselowski surged into superstardom. He won the June event at Kansas on fuel mileage, then recorded wins at Pocono and Bristol to charge into the Chase. The Pocono win came just days after a horrific testing crash at Brasleton's Road Atlanta in which he broke his ankle. The gritty win conjured up memories of a pair of gutsy winning performances by NASCAR legend Ricky Rudd. He was a legitimate title contender until a late-race spin at Martinsville and a pit-road incident at Texas dropped him from the fight.
Several other drivers have had their moment in the sun. In fact, through 35 Sprint Cup Series races, there have been 18 different winners. That is one shy of the record set in 2001. Five of those drivers won for the first time in their careers. Three of the sport's "Big Four" races were won by first-timers, as Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), and Paul Menard (Brickyard 400) each had their finest moment on one of racing's biggest stages. Only the Coca-Cola 600 was won by a veteran, as Kevin Harvick passed Dale Earnhardt Jr's stricken machine off the final corner to snare his third of four wins this season.
Unadilla, GA's David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July, marking the first year since 1994 (Sterling Marlin in the Daytona 500, Jimmy Spencer in July) that first-time winners swept the events at the World Center of Speed. It was also the first Sprint Cup win for a Georgian since Bill Elliott won at Rockingham in November 2003. The other first time winner was Australia's Marcos Ambrose, who joined Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya, Canada's Earl Ross, and Italian-born Mario Andretti as the only foreign-born drivers to triumph at NASCAR's top level with his win at Watkins Glen in August.
The history of the 2011 season will likely include a chapter dedicated to Kyle Busch, who - after repeated PR campaigns announcing a matured "New Kyle" - had the largest meltdown of his career in the Camping World Truck Series race at Texas two weeks ago and was parked by NASCAR for the Sprint Cup event. The year wasn't all bad for Busch, who passed the 100 NASCAR victories mark across the three national divisions and is tied with Stewart and Harvick for the most Sprint Cup wins this season.
Other milestones included Jeff Gordon's landmark 85th win in the rain-delayed Advocare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and Stewart's 40th-career triumph at Chicagoland Speedwway to open the Chase.
Ultimately, the checkered flag that brings the Ford 400 to an end Sunday and officially crowns Edwards or Stewart as champion will also bring the curtain down on one of the best years of Sprint Cup racing in recent memory. It has been anything but short on stories or drama, and perhaps the offseason will allow drivers, teams, officials, and fans a much-needed opportunity to digest all that took place this year as we look forward to the 2012 Daytona 500.