For all the angst and despair brought on by the two-by-two racing that has emerged at Daytona and Talladega, one thing is clear.
The two tracks have produced the most exciting, most intense races in the first half of the 2011 season.
The two tracks have wowed fans with unimagined numbers in terms of lead changes and leaders, and when it was over, two first-time winners – Trevor Bayne and David Ragan – graced victory lane at Daytona. And Jimmie Johnson prevailed at Talladega in a stunning three-wide run for the money that resulted in tying the closest finish since NASCAR put aside its collective stopwatches and started timing races electronically.
But it takes more than 2.5 miles of race track and restrictor plates to make an exciting race. Bad boys battling up front in the tight confines of a short track can bring fans to their feet as well and, as fans saw at Charlotte, even a fuel mileage race can leave a lasting impression.
With that in mind, here are this year’s top seven races through the first half of the Sprint Cup season:
1. Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway
“Are you kidding me?”
The words belonged to Trevor Bayne, but it’s likely he wasn’t the only person stunned by the late developments in the series’ biggest race of the season.
With drafting help from Bobby Labonte, and a miscue only moments earlier by David Ragan, the 20-year-old Bayne became the youngest driver to capture the season-opening event.
The win came in Bayne’s second career Cup start, and earned Wood Brothers Racing it’s first victory since 2001 and it’s fifth in the 500.
The 74 lead changes and 22 different leaders, helped in part by the new, smooth racing surface, were both track records.
But perhaps more telling is that it’s the one event that fans and competitors continue to talk about months after the race was run.
2. Aaron’s 499, Talladega Superspeedway
They didn’t break the mark for most lead changes in a NASCAR Cup race, but they tied it.
In a race that was slowed just six times for cautions – including three for multicar pileups – 26 drivers swapped the lead 88 times during the 188-lap event. And when the checkered flag finally dropped, Jimmie Johnson was in front.
By the slimmest of margins.
With teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. providing the push, Johnson ran down fellow teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon going to the checkered flag, but only narrowly edged the tandem of Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards, who were blazing their own trail on the high side of the track.
The photo finish had Johnson hitting the line first – by 0.002 second. It tied the closest finish in series history since the advent of electronic scoring, a mark set in 2003 by Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington.
3. Coke Zero 400, Daytona
The July stop at Daytona didn’t upstage the February race, but it was memorable, and exciting, just the same.
David Ragan, 132 days after pulling out of line on a late restart cost him a shot at the 500, used drafting help from teammate Matt Kenseth to score his first career victory and redeem himself for his earlier miscue.
The 25 different leaders was a track record, while the 57 lead changes was a race record. Not surprisingly, there were two huge multicar accidents, both coming in the closing laps and involving 15 drivers each.
Eight different drivers led for 10 or more laps, but it was Ragan’s redemption that helped make this one memorable.
4. Southern 500, Darlington Raceway
Another first-time winner joined the Cup ranks as Regan Smith made a two-tire gamble pay off at Darlington in a race that is remembered as much for what happened on pit road afterward as for who won.
At least four drivers appeared to have race-winning cars before Smith made his way to the front to grab the spotlight. Kasey Kahne led a race high 124 laps in one of his Red Bull Racing team’s best efforts of the year; Kyle Busch led 78 laps, Carl Edwards 57 and Kevin Harvick 47. Edwards was able to salvage a second-place finish.
But a dustup between Harvick and Busch eventually collected Clint Bowyer, and when the race was over, a steamed Harvick exited his car and attempted to punch Busch, who pulled away, knocking Harvick’s unmanned car aside and into the pit road wall.
The post-race antics drew a four-race probation for the two drivers as well as individual $25,000 fines.
It was not only Smith’s first career Cup win, but also the first win for his Furniture Row Racing team as well.
5. Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500, Martinsville Speedway
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. muscled his way past Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining, fans in the grandstands roared. Who couldn’t appreciate the sport’s most popular driver, nursing a long losing streak, shoving one of its biggest villains aside for the lead and the laps winding down, perhaps just moments away from a stunning win?
The only problem was that the win failed to materialize.
Kevin Harvick did materialize, however, and after several tense laps, pulled ahead of Earnhardt Jr. to lead the final four laps and collect the win.
Busch had been dominant, but 12 different drivers led at least one lap, and there were 31 lead changes up front.
6. Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway
Kevin Harvick had already been tagged “The Closer” long before the Cup series rolled into Charlotte for the season’s longest race.
In his two earlier wins this season – at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville – the Richard Childress Racing driver had led a total of seven laps as he rallied late to score the two victories.
At Charlotte, he was lurking once again, and when fuel woes hit the field late in the race, Harvick was there, ready to pounce.
After leader Greg Biffle had to give up the top spot to make a late stop for gas, Kasey Kahne led, only to run out of gas on the first lap of a green-white-checkered restart. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed headed for his first win since 2008, but his fuel tank ran dry less than a quarter of a lap from the finish.
Which opened the door for Harvick, who had plenty of fuel and, when it mattered most, the lead.
Roush Fenway Racing drivers dominated early, leading more than 200 laps; Kyle Busch endured two separate spins before the second led his team to say goodnight less than 100 laps from the finish; while defending series champ Jimmie Johnson had pit problems before eventually losing the engine, leading crew chief Chad Knaus to ask, “Are you (expletive) kidding me?”
7. Subway Fresh Fit 500, Phoenix International Raceway
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon ended a 66-race winless streak with his victory in the desert, but before the Hendrick driver put the clamps on the field, the lead see-sawed back and forth between Carl Edwards, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
Multicar accidents, somewhat uncharacteristic for the 1-mile track, gobbled up five or more cars on two separate occasions, including one that swept up 14 and led to a red-flag stop of nearly 15 minutes.
The victory was the first since the offseason pairing of Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Kyle Busch missed a bid to sweep all three events (truck, Nationwide and Cup) at a track on a single weekend, finishing a distant second to Gordon.