Monumental highs and heartbreaking lows in auto racing during 2011

Dec 27 2011 - 11:31pm

MILWAUKEE -- When, we ask, is the right time to wrap up a year that won't end? Because that pretty much sums up 2011 in motorsports.

Starting with a head-shaker of a Daytona 500, it included more monumental highs and heartbreaking lows than in any other in years. Maybe decades. With a sour economy continuing to play havoc with such a sponsor-driven industry, continuous deal-making and deal-scrambling have all but wiped out the off-season.

In most years, a 20-year-old winning his sport's biggest event could carry a season. That's almost an afterthought in a year that had a little of everything from A to Z, or at least from Bayne to Wheldon.

Mindful of holiday overindulgence, we'll try to break the year down into digestible bites:

Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers set an improbably high standard in the Daytona 500. The former "Trevor Who?" became a household name when he won a day after his 20th birthday. Just as important for the previous generation, he helped bring back to prominence a team steeped in history but stuck in the past. Bayne hadn't raced in the 500 before, and the Woods hadn't won one since Bayne's parents were kids. There hadn't been a more popular Daytona victory since Dale Earnhardt won it in 1998 nor one that evoked such emotion in a decade since Earnhardt had died.

The outcome was almost enough to make fans briefly forget the strange style that emerged with pairs of cars scattered about on 2 1/2 miles of fresh pavement and drivers sharing radio frequencies as if they were desperate singles scrawling phone numbers on bar napkins.

Turns out 2011 was the year for first-time winners in big-time Sprint Cup races. Regan Smith won the Southern 500, Paul Menard the Brickyard and David Ragan the return to Daytona in July. Eighteen drivers went to victory lane, six of them for the first time.

Bayne, meanwhile, faded into the background, missing a month with Lyme disease and then struggling to match the pace of Nationwide Series teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as Stenhouse sewed up that title.

Over all of it a persistent 4-year-old question hung: Will Jimmie Johnson win another title?

In IndyCar, second-year CEO Randy Bernard had brought a level of energy and fresh ideas that had been lacking. A highly anticipated new car still was a full year away, but 2011 would include a first-time event in Baltimore, a unique race format for Texas -- twin features -- as well as the returns of Milwaukee and New Hampshire, short ovals known for great racing, and a Las Vegas event that offered a $5 million jackpot if an outsider could win.

The series even had a Bayne-like moment in May when popular Dan Wheldon took a one-race ride with old teammate Bryan Herta and won the 100th-anniversary Indianapolis 500. Seconds earlier rookie J.R. Hildebrand had crashed in the final corner, and he rode the wreckage home to a second-place finish.

Summer, it seemed, couldn't keep up with spring.

Milwaukee was flop for a variety of reasons. Among them: a business community wary of spending money on the Mile after having been burned, mistakes by a rookie promoter, apathy in a historically great racing town, and morning showers that doused any hope for walkup ticket sales.

New Hampshire underperformed, too, and chief steward Brian Barnhart made matters worse by restarting the race in an unsafe drizzle. By yearend, Barnhart had been removed from race control. Baltimore was a big hit; only later did it come to light it had been a financial boondoggle. The Texas twins were a worthy try, but it'll be back to a single race next season.

Meanwhile, reigning champion Sebastian Vettel had his way in Formula One. The German's accomplishment took more meaning in the United States as the Circuit of the Americas took shape outside Austin, Texas, in anticipation of a 2012 Grand Prix.

In October another U.S. event was announced for 2013, in New Jersey, within view of the Manhattan skyline. Shortly thereafter, trouble among Austin organizers and between them and Formula One reached a peak. Construction on the circuit was halted and then restarted. Now bills have been paid and the race is back on the calendar for Nov. 18.

Fall brought NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup and the insistence by Tony Stewart that he had no chance. Some of us took him at his word. Oops.

Winless through the first 26 races, Stewart won the first two of the Chase and two of the final three to run down Carl Edwards, beat him in a 1-2 finish in the finale, pull even in points and win the title on a tiebreaker with five victories. Their competition was compelling, and so was the evolution of their relationship from absolute disdain years ago into a mutual respect.

The Stewart-Edwards battle brought NASCAR (and ESPN) a welcome bump in ratings. Johnson watched, too, because for a change he wasn't in it when it mattered. The driver known as Five Time placed sixth in the final standings, the worst of his 10-year career.

Off the track, drivers began to show their personalities via social media. Johnson showed a casual side beyond his white-bread image, and the wry humor of Matt Kenseth and straight talk from Brad Keselowski endeared them to a legion of Twitter followers.

Whereas NASCAR finished with a flourish, IndyCar went out with the sickening thud when a horrific crash sent cars sailing everywhere. Wheldon launched into the fence in the melee, and he died when his head hit a fence post. The gregarious Brit left behind a wife and two young children.

Wheldon had helped develop the 2012 car, whose design included features intended to minimize the sort of wheel-to-wheel contact that sends cars airborne. The car, now designated the DW12 in Wheldon's honor, brought high hopes, but testing thus far has shown its performance to be lacking. So much for anticipation.

Ordinarily motorsports takes a break after the final checkered flag flies, but December has been busier than most. The end of Red Bull and sponsor-forced cutbacks at Roush and Childress led to massive layoffs NASCAR-wide with race winners Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers among the unemployed.

An obscenity-laced tirade cost 2004 champion Kurt Busch his job with Penske. (Bad boy brother Kyle merely cost himself one race as a NASCAR-imposed penalty for wrecking Ron Hornaday in a truck race.) Kurt's dismissal led to one of the few positive moves of the postseason, promising AJ Allmendinger leaving an unsponsored ride to fill that spot.

So, where does this leave major American racing and its fans? With plenty of questions still to be answered in the two months before the start of a 2012 season that can't possibly match 2011. Can it?

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