Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rating the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: 3.3 Stars

NASCAR journeys into the offseason this year with tons of momentum following one of the best championship runs in the history of the sport. The storylines from this season were as good as any, as were several of the races were. The 2011 Sprint Cup Series season gets a 3.3 Star Rating.

That rating is an average of the ratings from each race this season, excluding the two non-points events and the reader’s choice edition for the Watkins Glen race.

Here is the breakdown of ratings throughout the season:

5 Stars: 8 races

4 Stars: 5 races

3 Stars: 11 races

2 Stars: 10 races

1 Star: 1 race

The 2011 season had more 5 Star races than the past two year’s Monday Morning Crew Chief has rated races, but there were also many more 2 Star races. The good races were really good, while the not-so-great races were worse than normal.

Let’s take a look back at some of the memorable races from this season.

For the first time, the season opened as closed with the best rating possible: 5 Stars. The Daytona 500 started the year off with one of the most incredible races in the history of the sport. Just 20 years old, Trevor Bayne won the race in the Wood Brothers #21 Ford; the first time that organization had been to Victory Lane since 2001. This is a team that no longer shows up to every race, and often it looked like the sport had blown by the Wood Brothers as they struggled to simply remain in the sport. But then, a driver making just the second Cup start of his career, went out and won the first race of his NASCAR career. That wasn’t just his first Cup win; it was his first win in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

It’s hard to top one of the greatest Daytona 500 stories ever, but Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards did their best as they fought to the very end of the Ford 400 in the closest championship battle in NASCAR’s 63-year history. There will never be a closer points battle than this year. Stewart and Edwards tied, but Stewart won the title because he won the race, his fifth in the Chase, topping Edwards’ one win early in the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Stewart not only won the race and the championship, but he had to come back through the entire field twice and then held off his championship competitor at the end as the top-two drivers in the series this year finished first and second.

Other 5 Star races included Regan Smith’s win in the Southern 500, the Aaron's 499 at Talladega that tied for the closest finish in NASCAR history, as well as a pair of races at NASCAR’s biggest track, Talladega, and its smallest, Martinsville, to finish out October and set the stage for the championship fight.

While there were plenty of terrific races, the season average isn’t all that high because there were more sub-par races than normal. The high number of fuel-mileage races is partially to blame. Those races are often tense as drivers work to conserve fuel, but they usually don’t make for very close finishes and sometimes the winner didn’t have a challenger at the end of the race.

The 2 Star races included the first two Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire where Stewart won both on fuel-mileage. However, other below-average races came at places such as Dover, Kentucky and Pocono where fuel mileage didn’t come into play.

Those were races, including the two at New Hampshire, where drivers simply couldn’t make much headway on the track. The late summer stretch this year was particularly brutal in some follow-the-leader races. The car designs might be better than when the Car of Tomorrow came out in 2007, but it still needs work. The 2013 car models might help fix some of that, but NASCAR shouldn’t sit back and wait until that change, or next year will again be filled with many 2 Star races.

The lone 1 Star race of the season came in June with the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Speedway. A morning of rain, and a race filled with debris cautions, mechanical failures and a dominant performance by Jeff Gordon made for one of the longest racedays of the season. The races at Pocono might be only 400 miles next year, but that still wouldn’t have helped this race. It also began a nine-week stretch where only one race received a rating higher than 3 Stars, and that was the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

The 2011 season will be remembered as one of the best in many years. All in all, the last two years have been much better than the NEXTEL Cup era and the transition to the new car. This year’s championship run was amazing, but the 2010 battle among Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick was pretty exciting, as well.

Maybe 2012 will be even better. Now that Johnson doesn’t win everything all the time, we could be headed into a stretch where many drivers are regularly in contention for race wins.

Hopefully you enjoyed the ratings throughout the season. Monday Morning Crew Chief will stay active with offseason news and opinion pieces as NASCAR fans struggle through those long three months that make up an offseason that is shorter than other sports, but always feels longer.

Have a wonderful holiday season, everybody.


  1. Gordon v Johnson at Atlanta's Tuesday throw-down isn't mentioned specifically as a five star event?

  2. Always look forward to comparing our ratings each week!

    Happy Holidays, JM!

  3. Mr Wacohi - That race would've gotten 5 Stars if rain had left it alone and it had been the Labor Day spectacle we were all hoping it would be, but instead it got 4 Stars. It's tough to give 5 Stars to a race that was two days late. Think of it as a fancy meal, while the food might be great, it needs atmosphere to go with it.

    Gene - It's been another great season. The view from the flagstand is must-read material to finish up a race weekend. Have a terrific offseason!