The 2011 NASCAR season is off to a roaring start, sparked by a thrilling Daytona 500 with a shocking outcome.
In the first three races of the season, there have been exciting finishes, a record number of lead changes, big multicar wrecks, aggressive driving, tempers flaring and three different winners for the first time since 2007.
It’s led to a momentum and early-season buzz that NASCAR officials have not seen in a few years.
“Obviously, the competition has never been better,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said Wednesday. “That's been brewing in terms of going in the right direction for a number of months, dating back well into last year where … we made a number of changes in the new car … to get the car racing as good as we possibly can.”
NASCAR and several teams are off to good starts, but there’s only been three races, too few to make any bold predictions for the rest of the season.
But here’s a look at seven things that we’ve learned so far:
1. Fans are watching again.
NASCAR has been struggling with declining TV ratings and race attendance in the past few years, with the economy taking its toll, but many fans also losing interest or becoming disgruntled over what they’ve seen on the track or all the changes in the sport.
But fans appear to be regaining interest. TV ratings have increased for all three of this year’s Cup races, including 13 percent for the Daytona 500 and 29 percent for last week’s race at Las Vegas.
Attendance also seems to be up with sell-out crowds at both Phoenix and Las Vegas.
While rookie Trevor Bayne’s amazing win at Daytona has certainly sparked interest, so has the competition on the track, which has set records and produced some of the closest racing in series history.
So far, NASCAR has seen:
• An average of 41 lead changes per race – including records at Daytona and Phoenix – which is the most ever through three races.
• An average of 16 different leaders per race, also a record through three races.
• 32 different drivers have led at least one lap, also the most through three races.
• An average margin of victory of 0.83, the closest in three years.
NASCAR officials have worked hard in the past few years to alter its rules and tweak its new car to enhance competition. So far, it seems to be working – on and off the track.
2. Carl Edwards could be the man.
Edwards was Jimmie Johnson’s toughest challenger in 2008, winning a series-high nine races and finishing second in points.
But he struggled through a winless season in 2009 and didn’t recover until the end of last season, when he won the final two races of the season.
Edwards has sustained that momentum in 2011, finishing second at Daytona and winning last week at Las Vegas. So far, he looks like the driver to beat this season and the contender most likely to challenge Johnson for the championship.
The majority of Edwards’ 19 career Cup wins have come on the big, fast intermediate tracks where Roush Fenway Racing excels. But his fast start has shown that he will be a factor on other tracks this season as well.
Edwards indeed may Johnson’s biggest challenger.
“I'm really excited about this season,” he said. “This is a great start.”
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be back.
Relatively speaking, that is. Earnhardt Jr. isn’t close to stringing together a streak of victories – which was expected when he joined Hendrick Motorsports – but he does seem to be clicking with new crew chief Steve Letarte and could be a contender to return to the Chase for the first time since 2008.
Earnhardt Jr. has consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since last July and is 10th in points.
That’s not much to write home about, but represents significant progress for a driver who has finished 25th and 21st in points the last two years.
If Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte can continue to show progress, a win and a spot in the Chase are not out of the question.
4. The Fords are fast.
Roush Fenway Racing, Ford’s flagship team, finished strong last season with Edwards winning the last two races of the season.
And the organization and manufacturer have come out with guns blazing this season. Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory for Wood Brothers Racing was Ford’s 600th NASCAR win.
Edwards won the pole at Phoenix while teammate Matt Kenseth was fastest at Las Vegas. Then Edwards won the Las Vegas race.
With a new nose on the front of the Fusion and a rejuvenated Roush Fenway Racing, it could be a big year for the blue oval.
“It's just a joy to drive these race cars right now,” Edwards said. “The Fords are back, and we're strong.”
5. Boys, have at it – again.
Though there haven’t been any big dust-ups or feuds yet (Robby Gordon allegedly punching Kevin Conway in the garage doesn’t count), it’s coming.
The Daytona 500 was a crashfest, with a 14-car pileup and a record 16 caution flags. Another multicar melee broke out at Phoenix – gathering up 14 more cars – and drivers have been complaining about aggressive driving, particularly early in races.
Whether it’s NASCAR’s new points system, the difficulty to pass or just increased competition, drivers appear to be racing harder than ever.
“I think it is just the times in racing right now,” driver AJ Allmendinger said. “The Sprint Cup Series is tougher than it has been in a long time. Everyone is fighting for the sponsors and for their jobs. You see that on the race track. Everybody has to be aggressive to be fast. There is a certain level of aggressiveness that you have to have.”
5. Stewart-Haas Racing is vastly improved.
If there’s anybody hotter than Edwards right now, it’s Stewart.
A leaner, slimmer version of the two-time champion was a contender to win each of the first three races and admittedly “gave away” the race at Las Vegas.
Stewart was surprisingly dominant on the 1.5-mile track, leading 163 laps and showing that his Stewart-Haas team has made big strides in the offseason.
Stewart is leading the points (although he and Kurt Busch have identical points totals, Stewart is considered the leader because of his higher finishing position this year) and teammate Ryan Newman, who has two top-five finishes, is fifth.
The organization struggled a bit in its second season last year. Stewart won two races and made the Chase, but was inconsistent and faded down the stretch. Newman went winless and missed the Chase.
Stewart’s two-car team looks to be back and gaining on NASCAR’s elite teams.
6. There could be some big surprises in the Chase.
After three races, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr. and AJ Allmendinger are all in the top 10 in points.
Can they stay there?
Don’t bet against it.
Menard is driving for Richard Childress Racing, which put three drivers in the Chase last year, and has shown the type of finishing consistency that it takes to get in to the 10-race playoff.
Truex was a favorite to make it last year, but had a disappointing season. If his team can keep his car under him, he can drive it to the front.
Allmendinger is one of the sport’s most underrated drivers and has shown flashes of potential the past two years. Richard Petty Motorsports also appears to be vastly improved.
Others who could challenge for a spot include: Marcos Ambrose, who finished fourth last week at Las Vegas; Brian Vickers, who made the Chase in 2009; and David Reutimann, who has a win in each of the past two seasons.
This could be the year when we see a big shakeup in the championship race.
7. The race for the Chase could be wild.
Just as there could be some big surprises in the Chase, there could be some big names that miss it. Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are already in trouble after bad luck and slow starts.
The wild card, though, is, well, NASCAR’s new wild card. The two drivers outside the top 10 (between 11th-20th) who have the most wins after 26 races will make the Chase.
That means that drivers who fall too far behind in the standings can gamble for wins to try to earn one of the wild cards.
That could make the Race to the Chase the most compelling in the eight-year history of the format.