5. Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Win Championships
Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Camping World and Nationwide Series Championships, respectively. Stenhouse won a championship that was highly contested throughout the season. Austin Dillon was an early-season favorite to win the championship, and the battle came down to the final race, where he was able to defeat Johnny Sauter to win the title. With young drivers like Dillon and Stenhouse, the future of NASCAR seems to be in good hands.
|Stenhouse and Dillon with their championship trophies (Photo courtesy Getty Images)|
The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series had five first-time winners this season. The winning started as soon as the season began, with Trevor Bayne won the season-opening Daytona 500. The next driver to get his first win was Regan Smith, who out-dueled Carl Edwards to win the legendary Southern 500. When the Sprint Cup Series returned to Daytona in July, David Ragan became the third driver to win his first career race. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And two weeks later, Marcos Ambrose finally won his first Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen. Hopefully next season, we will see more drivers take their first trips to Victory Lane.
|Trevor Bayne celebrates winning the Daytona 500. Bayne was among five first-time winners (Photo courtesy REUTERS)|
Trevor Bayne helped to push drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards all through Speedweeks; but, when the White Flag flew, Trevor Bayne found himself leading the field. Bayne, who raced for Jack Roush in the Nationwide Series, was on loan from Roush to the Wood Brothers, who made their return to Victory Lane in the biggest way possible. Trevor Bayne also won his first Nationwide race, and seems to be on track to be one of NASCAR's future starts.
2. Brad Keselowski's Breakout Season
Brad Keselowski had won one Sprint Cup Series race prior to the 2011 season, and had shown flashes of what the future might hold. But I don't think anyone expected Keselowski to have the breakout year that he would have in 2011. First, Keselowski won a fuel mileage race in Kansas. He then won at Pocono in August, following a broken ankle the week prior. Three weeks later, he won again at Bristol, and was able to work his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. He finished off his solid season with a fifth place finish in the championship standings. Only time will tell if this is the way that Keselowski will be every year, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see Brad Keselowski fighting for a Sprint Cup Championship in the future.
|Brad Keselowski celebrates with his crew (Photo courtesy Getty Images)|
Tony Stewart entered the Chase in ninth place, and had zero wins in the regular season. Following a Chase performance that was legendary, Stewart would hoist the Sprint Cup Trophy for the third time. Carl Edwards fought with Stewart for the championship, and would tie Stewart in the season standings; Stewart won the tie breaker on his five wins, as compared to Edwards' one. Stewart also completed a bookend of Jimmie Johnson's amazing reign as Sprint Cup Champion; Stewart was the last person to win a Championship before Johnson's reign began in 2006.
|Stewart won five times in the Chase, including Texas, en route to his third Sprint Cup Championship (Photo courtesy Getty Images)|