Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011:
20 May 1971
Columbus, Indiana USA
There really couldn't have been any other winner of this vote than the new Cup holder, Tony Stewart, could there? It's been a quite extraordinary year for the now three-time series champion.
For much of the season, 2011 looked set to be a deeply miserable year for the owner-driver. Bumping along at the bottom of the qualifiers for the Chase and never looking in contention for a race win, he was under no illusion that even if he made it to the post season play-offs that it would be any different. Stressed, frustrated and at times very surly with the media, he said bluntly that with the sort of form the #14 car was showing there was no point in merely taking up space and bumping someone with a real chance of competing for the title out of the Chase.
And then came the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, and Tony Stewart suddenly found himself in victory lane. No one saw that coming. When he repeated the feat the next week in New Hampshire, the sound of jaws hitting the floor was deafening. But these had been victories broadly based on clever fuel strategies, and the following week it looked like a return to business as usual (25th at Dover) and the brief fever dream faded. Stewart started to look ahead to 2012, and in the process made the decision to tell his longtime crew chief Darian Grubb that he was fired with effect from the end of the season.
This could have deflated the team altogether, but instead Stewart's form was growing better and he got consecutive top ten finishes at Charlotte and Talladega. Then he beat Jimmie Johnson at a late restart to claim victory at Martinsville and followed it up a week later with another win at Texas - his fourth of the year and all of them in the Chase.
A switch in Stewart's mind had been flipped and now he was absolutely certain to his bones that he was destined to win the championship. How else to explain that extraordinary performance in the season finale at Homestead-Miami where he survived early adversity and fought his way from the back twice, and yet was always somehow looking like the driver who would take the chequered flag - which he did, putting him equal in points with Carl Edwards and the Cup champion by virtue of having more race wins.
It made for a near-mythic end to what had been a classic NASCAR season, one that will be talked about and remembered for years to come.
Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011 results: 2nd-10th
2. Carl Edwards
3. Brad Keselowski
4. Matt Kenseth
5. Kevin Harvick
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Marcos Ambrose
8. Jimmie Johnson
9. Kasey Kahne
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.