CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR opened its season with a fresh-faced Daytona 500 winner and ended it with one of the most thrilling championship races in series history.
In between, there was conflict, controversy and, most important, compelling competition — none more so than Sunday's season finale. Tony Stewart grabbed his third NASCAR championship with a determined drive at Homestead, where he passed an unbelievable 118 cars to win for the fifth time in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The victory left him tied with Carl Edwards in the final points standings — a NASCAR first — and Stewart got the title on the tie-breaker of season wins.
"If you didn't think this was one of the most exciting Chases to watch from a fan standpoint, you've got to go to a doctor immediately and get checked out," Stewart said.
The television ratings backed it up, as NASCAR saw an upswing for the first time in years. ESPN had its largest audience ever for a NASCAR race, as the 4.0 rating was up 18 percent from last year's finale.
More important, ratings for the entire Chase were up 14.8 percent from last year.
"Obviously, we think the season has gone very well," NASCAR chairman Brian France said two days before the race.
It was a good season, beginning with Trevor Bayne's improbable Daytona 500 victory. Nobody gave the 20-year-old a chance in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, not in his first Daytona 500 start and driving for a team that hadn't been to Victory Lane in a decade.
But with a slew of veterans lined up behind him on the final restart — Stewart included — Bayne kept his foot on the gas and drove the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to a stunning upset. It was a tremendous kickoff to the season and made many people forget about the two-car tandem racing style that had taken over at Daytona.
As the months wore on, 18 different drivers won Sprint Cup races, including six first-time winners. Among them was Regan Smith, driving for underfunded, single-car team Furniture Row Racing, and Marcos Ambrose, who proved Richard Petty Motorsports could still compete after staving off a 2010 collapse.
And then there was Brad Keselowski, a brash and outspoken driver who just two years ago was a thorn in most everyone's side. That seems so long ago now. Keselowski has grown into a media darling and backed it up with a sensational summer run — while driving with a broken ankle — that got him into his first Chase and earned him a surprising fifth place in the final points standings.
His emergence helped soften things at Penske Racing, which all year was forced to clean up behind driver Kurt Busch.
Busch sparred with his team, the media, and his meltdowns on his in-car radio became legendary. Just this week, Busch's crew chief formally quit the team and Penske officials took the unusual step of issuing a public apology when a fan posted video to YouTube of Busch being verbally abusive Sunday to an ESPN reporter.
Then there's Busch's little brother.
The last month of the season was rough for Kyle Busch, the top seed at the start of the Chase who ended the year ranked last in the 12-driver standings. He was suspended by NASCAR three weeks ago at Texas for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in a Truck Series race, and Kyle Busch had to fight hard to keep primary sponsor M&M's from firing him.
Although his job appears to be safe, his future participation in Nationwide and Truck races seems to be in jeopardy.
The suspension was one of the many hiccups for Kyle Busch, who unwittingly became the poster boy for NASCAR's "Boys, have at it" policy.
Still grappling with just how far drivers can go in policing themselves, NASCAR officials held up Busch at Texas as the one who finally crossed the line. But, there's still questions: A week after Busch's incident, Brian Vickers intentionally wrecked Matt Kenseth at Phoenix — after announcing weeks before that Kenseth had one coming — and NASCAR took no action.
NASCAR also didn't explain publicly why Vickers wasn't punished, and it was discovered days before the season finale that Keselowski had been secretly fined $25,000 for critical comments he made about fuel injection. At a time when NASCAR claims to be transparent, it was back-to-back examples of the missteps the series still makes.
France has promised to re-evaluate the process of not announcing all fines during the offseason.
There are other issues to be addressed, as well.
At least four major teams are going away next year — one from Roush Fenway Racing, one from Richard Childress Racing and both Red Bull cars — because of sponsorship issues. Kenseth, a former series champion who challenged for the title deep into the Chase, has no funding lined up for next year, and team owner Jack Roush has said he'll pay for Kenseth's car out of pocket if he must.
Roush already has begun layoffs as David Ragan's Cup team likely won't exist next season, and Roush has nowhere to put Bayne or reigning Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
After fielding three Nationwide cars this season, the team likely will be down to 1.5 next year.
Kevin Harvick Inc. closed its doors after celebrating the Truck Series owner's championship. Harvick's Nationwide cars went to RCR, and he shuttered the truck program. It might prove to be a wise decision as making money in NASCAR's lower two divisions becomes a difficult endeavor going forward. NASCAR finally unveiled its 2012 Truck Series schedule this week, and it was down three races to 22 as many tracks said they couldn't make the business model work.
The most immediate challenge, though, is breaking up the two-car packs before racing resumes again at Daytona in February.
The season finale was so thrilling, and drew a fair share of casual viewers, that NASCAR must back it up come the Daytona 500 with a solid show.
NASCAR took several cars to Daytona before the season finale to try different aerodynamic packages, and work likely will continue deep into January on making sure racing at Daytona returns to the style fans love.
"We are working on rolling back the clock to traditional Daytona, Talladega races," France said. "We'll have to see how that goes. I think the majority of fans would like to see that, and so would we."
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