NASCAR Crystal Ball 2011: The 2011 Sprint Cup Series Season In Review

Daniel HarmonContributor IJanuary 9, 2011

NASCAR Crystal Ball 2011: The 2011 Sprint Cup Series Season In Review

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    What to expect in 2011.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    If one were to really look inside their crystal ball to see what would happen in NASCAR in 2011, what would they find? Would Jimmie Johnson win his sixth consecutive title? Can anyone stop him? Will one man dominate the regular season? Who would be the first time winners?

    The truth is, nobody really knows what is going to happen, but I'm going to look inside of my crystal ball give you a race by race breakdown of 2011. Its my version of "fantasy NASCAR".

    Here are my bold predictions in 2011, I can only hope I am right.

The Shootout At Daytona

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    Jr, Wins the Bud Shootout.Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    In an opening much like we saw in 2008, Dale Earnhardt. Jr. makes a statement in the Budweiser Shootout. Holding off a furious charge from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin on the last lap before the race ended under caution, Junior finds himself opening 2011 in victory lane.

    The race was wild, as we saw paint trading and bump drafting on the new Daytona surface. Handling was less important, as the race looked more like Talladega with large groups of cars. Everyone shuffled around during the night.

    The highlight of the night was the last lap crash that occurred when Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle got together off turn two, collecting Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and sent Clint Bowyer in the air down the backstretch. All drivers were okay after several hard hits.

    Top 5:

    1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    2. Kyle Busch

    3. Denny Hamlin

    4. Kurt Busch

    5. Jeff Burton

Race #1: The Daytona 500

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    Junior is back.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Its early to say he's back, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is making a statement with his Daytona 500 victory! After falling short to Jamie McMurray last season, Earnhardt was able to make it to victory lane, after a blown tire by Paul Menard set up a three-wide battle for the lead with a green-white-checkered.

    The caution fell with 5 laps to go, and then leader Kurt Busch was in a side-by-side battle with Tony Stewart on the restart. With a push from Jeff Burton, Junior surged to the lead as the white flag waved.

    The big story of the race as usual was the big wreck on lap 174, involving the dominant car of the day, driven by Kyle Busch. Busch and made contact with Juan Pablo Montoya collecting the likes of Ryan Newman, Kevin Conway, Michael Waltrip, and Joey Logano. Others were involved, but escaped with minor damage.

    Earnhardt had not won a race since Michigan in 2008, but that streak ends today.

    The top ten:

    1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    2. Tony Stewart

    3. Jeff Burton

    4. Kurt Busch

    5. Jimmie Johnson

    6. David Ragan

    7. Jeff Gordon

    8. Jamie McMurray

    9. Martin Truex Jr.

    10. Carl Edwards

Race #2: Phoenix

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    Edwards makes Phoenix look easy.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Much like the end of 2010, Carl Edwards wins at Phoenix. Upset after falling short in the Daytona 500 after leading early, Edwards strikes back. Fuel mileage was not an issue, as a caution with 40 laps to go set up a shootout to the finish.

    Edwards survived a challenge from Jeff Gordon early on in the run, and was able to pull away from the field in the last twenty laps, to cruise to victory  by over three seconds over runner up Jimmie Johnson and nearly five seconds over third place finisher Clint Bowyer.

    Edwards may have fallen short at Daytona, but is picking up right where he left off in 2010, with very strong cars.

    Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was unable to overcome a pit miscue that left him a lap-down, and only managed to finish 17th.

    Also, pole-sitter Denny Hamlin found himself the victim of a an engine failure, ending the day in 39th.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Carl Edwards

    2. Jimmie Johnson

    3. Clint Bowyer

    4. Juan Pablo Montoya

    5. Joey Logano

    6. Jeff Gordon

    7. Kevin Harvick

    8. Jeff Burton

    9. Greg Biffle

    10. Kyle Busch

Race #3: Las Vegas

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    Burton wins big on a gamble.Harry How/Getty Images

    Las Vegas means gambling, and if anyone had some luck, it was Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. The two crafty veterans were able to gamble and save just enough fuel to coast to the checkered flag at Las Vegas. It was no sneaky win however, as both cars ran in the top ten nearly all day.

    The loser in the fuel mileage gamble? Jimmie Johnson. Johnson led the most laps in the race but was forced to pit with just 4 laps remaining.

    The top 7 drivers all made it to the finish without pitting for fuel.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jeff Burton

    2. Mark Martin

    3. Ryan Newman

    4. Matt Kenseth

    5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    6. David Ragan

    7. Paul Menard

    8. Jimmie Johnson

    9. Kevin Harvick

    10. Denny Hamlin

Race #4: Bristol

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    Hamlin wins at Bristol.Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    After a disappointing start, by Denny's standards. Hamlin dominated the spring race at Bristol, and did so from starting far back in the pack.

    After Jimmie Johnson won the pole, many expected him to repeat at Bristol, but a spin left Jimmie out of contention late in the race. Hamlin's win comes after sneaking into the top ten at Las Vegas.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Denny Hamlin

    2. Kyle Busch

    3. Jeff Gordon

    4. Kurt Busch

    5. Tony Stewart

    6. Kasey Kahne

    7. Jamie McMurray

    8. Kevin Harvick

    9. Ryan Newman

    10. Bobby Labonte

Race #5: Fontana

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    Kenseth cruses in California.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    In a close finish at California, Matt Kenseth is able to hold of a strong charge from Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.

    Both Harvick and Johnson pitted for four fresh tires, while Kenseth gained track position by taking fuel only on the final pit stop. Johnson and Harvick may have been there for a green-white-checkered, but the race stayed green until the end.

    It was a great run for Kenseth, but also a great run for polesitter Brian Vickers who finished fourth, his first top five since his return. Also noteworthy was Sam Hornish Jr, who finished twelfth in what may be his last run for the #77 without sponsorship.

    It was a disappointing day for Jeff Burton who spun after a three-wide battle with AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano. The finish dropped Burton from the points lead. The new leader? Jimmie Johnson.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Matt Kenseth

    2. Jimmie Johnson

    3. Kevin Harvick

    4. Brian Vickers

    5. Carl Edwards

    6. Greg Biffle

    7. Jeff Gordon

    8. AJ Allmendinger

    9. Clint Bowyer

    10. Kasey Kahne

Race #6: Martinsville

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    Smoke rises in MartinsvilleTom Pennington/Getty Images

    Martinsville was a race of short track bumping and banging. It was a race where saving brakes was key. Who saved the most brakes? Tony Stewart.

    Stewart fought most of the day with surprise pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead. Both had strong cars, but with 20 laps to go Stewart was able to move Earnhardt out of the groove for his first win in 2011.

    After the race Earnhardt said the bump was just hard racing, but he wont forget it next time he's behind Stewart.

    Many incidents caused a record number of yellow flags at Martinsville, most notably an incident that left Marcos Ambrose, the leader at the time, in the wall after contact with former teammate Martin Truex Jr.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Tony Stewart

    2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    3. Denny Hamlin

    4. Jeff Gordon

    5. David Reutimann

    6. Jimmie Johnson

    7. Bobby Labonte

    8. Martin Truex Jr.

    9. Kasey Kahne

    10. Joey Logano

Race #7: Texas

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    Jeff Gordon, back on top in Texas.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    On April 5, 2009, Jeff Gordon ended his career long losing streak at Texas by dominating the final laps. Two years and four days later, Gordon has done it again.

    It comes as no surprise that Gordon wins this race at Texas. After winning in 2009, Gordon's car was very strong in 2010, but his chances were dashed in a late race incident.

    With new crew-chief Alan Gustafson, Gordon finally returned to victory lane. The win comes in the same way Gordon lost many races last year, a green-white checkered.

    Everyone came in for tires on the last caution, and a slow pit stop forced Gordon behind Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle. On the restart, Busch and Biffle got together, forcing a second restart, where Gordon was able to hold off a hard charging Jeff Burton for the victory.

    After the race, Busch and Biffle had angry words for one another.

    A shout out in this race to Marcos Ambrose, who thanks to pit strategy and the green-white-checkered finish, came home in sixth place.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Jeff Burton

    3. Carl Edwards

    4. Kasey Kahne

    5. Jimmie Johnson

    6. Marcos Ambrose

    7. Denny Hamlin

    8. David Reutimann

    9. Jamie McMurray

    10. Juan Pablo Montoya

Race #8: Talladega

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    David Ragan earnes his first career win.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Its another first time winner at Talladega! After hanging at the back of the pack all day long, David Ragan uses his teammate Carl Edwards to go around teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on the final lap at Talladega.

    An emotional Ragan climbs from the car and celebrates, the latest in the trend of first time winners at Talladega. Teammate Carl Edwards and him embrace in victory lane.

    Restrictor plate luck or not, Ragan finally gets the monkey off his back, and wins a Sprint Cup Series Race.

    Again, a record number of lead changes lead for an amazing race. The lead changes, and a 20 car pileup with 35 laps to go highlighted the event.

    The Top Ten:

    1. David Ragan

    2. Carl Edwards

    3. Jeff Gordon

    4. Joey Logano

    5. Jimmie Johnson

    6. Martin Truex Jr.

    7. Clint Bowyer

    8. David Gilliland

    9. Paul Menard

    10. Jeff Burton

Race #9: Richmond

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    Hamlin earns his second win of 2011.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    For the first time this season, there is a repeat winner. Denny Hamlin wins in Richmond for his second short track win of the season.

    Carl Edwards, who is coming off a second place finish at Talladega, follows Hamlin to the checkered flag by 0.149 seconds. With that run Carl Edwards jumps into a tie for the points lead with Kevin Harvick.

    An impressive run by RCR, as all 4 RCR cars finish in the top 10, as Paul Menard leads the RCR charge with a sixth place finish.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Denny Hamlin

    2. Carl Edwards

    3. Tony Stewart

    4. Greg Biffle

    5. Jeff Gordon

    6. Paul Menard

    7. Clint Bowyer

    8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    9. Jeff Burton

    10. Kevin Harvick

Race #10: Darlington

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    Mark Martin ends his long winless drought.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Its been an odd year, especially for Hendrick Motorsports. With Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon ending their win less streaks, Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson have yet to find victory. Scratch that....Jimmie Johnson has yet to find victory.

    Mark Martin worked his car for all it was worth to take over the top spot from David Reutimann at Darlington for his first win since 2009.

    Martin praised God for his blessing to drive the 5 car to victory lane in his post-race interview. Martin, always a fan favorite says he is back, and ready to make a run at the Chase for the cup.

    A disappointing day for Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, as both deal with engine problems.

    Noteworthy: Brad Keselowski scores his first top ten of the season in the Miller Lite #2.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Mark Martin

    2. David Reutimann

    3. Greg Biffle

    4. Kasey Kahne

    5. AJ Allmendinger

    6. Jeff Gordon

    7. Brad Keselowski

    8. Kurt Busch

    9. Marcos Ambrose

    10. Martin Truex Jr.

Race #11: Dover

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    Uh oh, Jimmie heats up with a win at Dover.Nick Laham/Getty Images

    Finally, Jimmie Johnson doesn't have to answer questions asking, "whats wrong with Jimmie Johnson." Shutting the mouths of his critics, Jimmie Johnson wins at Dover in a dominating fashion.

    With green flag runs filling the day, Johnson who started third was able to stay in the top five virtually all race, while leading 208 of the race's 400 laps.

    Runner-up Ryan Newman said, "I don't know what we can do to catch that 48 car today, he must have found his horseshoe".

    Johnson looked relieved to finally break through into victory lane in 2011. For the first time since 2007, all four Hendrick cars have made it to victory lane, and its only 10 races in.

    The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets were all strong, as they had all four cars in the top ten.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    2. Ryan Newman

    3. Mark Martin

    4. Carl Edwards

    5. David Ragan

    6. Greg Biffle

    7. Jeff Gordon

    8. Tony Stewart

    9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    10. Kurt Busch

All-Star Weekend

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    Jeff Gordon is a million dollar man again.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    It has been 10 years since Jeff Gordon has won the all-star race. Tonight he is the million dollar man once again.

    On a night filled with chaos and on track incidents, Gordon comes out on top in the AARP Drive for Hunger Chevrolet.

    With defending all-star winner Kurt Busch on his heels, Jeff Gordon put on a show to hold on for the victory.

    The racing allowed for one of the best all-star races of all time.

    The Top Five:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Kurt Busch

    3. Mark Martin

    4. Kevin Harvick

    5. Kyle Busch.

Race #12: Coca-Cola 600

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    Kyle Busch breaks into victory lane in the Coke 600.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    The longest race of the year did not disappoint. From the drop of the green flag, there was racing throughout the field all night long.

    The best battle was between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson for the race lead with only 15 laps to go. The two changed the lead 9 times in the final 15 laps, with Kyle Busch prevailing to win his first race of the season.

    Despite the hard racing, a lack of cautions kept only a few cars on the lead lap by the end of the race. The last car on the lead lap was 11th place David Ragan, who finished only 0.5 seconds in front of the leader.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Kyle Busch

    2. Jimmie Johnson

    3. Clint Bowyer

    4. Kurt Busch

    5. Joey Logano

    6. Tony Stewart

    7. David Reutimann

    8. Matt Kenseth

    9. Jeff Gordon

    10. AJ Allmendinger

Race #13: Kansas

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    Stick with the Biff.Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    Kansas is usually suitable for Roush Racing's Fords. This was no different in the first spring race in Kansas history.

    Greg Biffle earned his first win of 2011, followed by all four Roush cars. Roush earned a 1-2-3-4 sweep of the field at Kansas. Now each Roush driver has won a race in 2011.

    The Fords were strong all day, although Jeff Gordon looked strong at times throughout the day.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Greg Biffle

    2. Matt Kenseth

    3. Carl Edwards

    4. David Ragan

    5. Jeff Gordon

    6. Kurt Busch

    7. Brian Vickers

    8. Kyle Busch

    9. Jimmie Johnson

    10. Joey Logano

Race #14: Pocono

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    Busch wins int he #22 for Shell/Pennzoil.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Kurt Busch had been close this season, but hadn't reached victory lane until his last lap pass on AJ Allmendinger at the Pocono 500.

    Allmendinger looked to have the field covered after a gamble not to pit on a late caution, but ran out of fuel off of turn three, as Busch sailed by for the victory. This is Busch's first win for Shell/Pennzoil and he earned it the hard way, rebounding from a speeding penalty on the first pit stop.

    An old rivalry continued today as Jeff Gordon was turned by Matt Kenseth early on. Gordon recovered for a 15th place finish, but had ill words for Kenseth after the race.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Kurt Busch

    2. Clint Bowyer

    3. Denny Hamlin

    4. AJ Allmendinger

    5. Paul Menard

    6. Joey Logano

    7. Jimmie Johnson

    8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    9. Kevin Harvick

    10. Jeff Burton

Race #15: Michigan

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    Edwards was the man to beat all weekend at Michigan.Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Carl, Carl, and more Carl. The only thing that could stop Carl Edwards' Aflac Ford Fusion was himself. Edwards won the pole and lead 123of the 200 laps in the race.

    Despite an early challenge from Brian Vickers, Edwards looked to be in his own zip code throughout the race, and cruised to victory by more than 11 seconds over second place Mark Martin.

    This race may have been a snooze to watch, but Edwards didn't mind as he did another back flip in 2011, and continued to solidify his points position.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Carl Edwards

    2. Mark Martin

    3. Greg Biffle

    4. Clint Bowyer

    5. Jimmie Johnson

    6. Jeff Burton

    7. David Reutimann

    8. Kurt Busch

    9. David Ragan

    10. Brad Keselowski

Race #16: Sonoma

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    Montoya is "King of the Road" again.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It has been a hard year for Juan Pablo Montoya. Although very much alive in the "Race to the Chase", he along with teammate Jamie McMurray always seem to finish outside of the top ten in 12th or 13th, respectively.

    Juan knew that Sonoma was his chance to shine, and took his chance and used it wisely. Starting the day 4th, he was able to outrun the dominant cars of Marcos Ambrose, Tony Stewart, and Robby Gordon by pitting early, and gaining time with fresher tires.

    Montoya credited the win to his crew chief Brian Pattie.

    The story of the day was transmission problems for defending race champion, and outside pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson. After leading early, he fell back with what were to be transmission issues, and was relegated to a 25th place finish.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Juan Pablo Montoya

    2. Tony Stewart

    3. Marcos Ambrose

    4. Jeff Gordon

    5. Robby Gordon

    6. Jamie McMurray

    7. Martin Truex Jr.

    8. Kevin Harvick

    9. Paul Menard

    10. Boris Said

Race #17: Daytona

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    Gordon drafts to victory at Daytona.Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon goes back to victory lane for his first multiple win season since 2007 with his victory in Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

    With help from his teammate Dale Earnhardt. Jr, who climbed to 10th in points with his third place finish, Gordon was pushed past the Stewart-HAAS teammates of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman on the backstretch on the final lap of the race.

    A big day for some, a bad day for others, as two big wrecks took out 9 of the top 12 in points.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Tony Stewart

    3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    4. Juan Pablo Montoya

    5. Jamie McMurray

    6. Kasey Kahne

    7. AJ Allmendinger

    8. Robby Gordon

    9. David Ragan

    10. Martin Truex Jr.

Race #18: Kentucky

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    Logano earns the win in Kentucky's first Cup race.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    In a race dominated by those with experience in the Nationwide Series at Kentucky, Joey Logano emerged victorious over teammate Kyle Busch.

    Logano and Busch, have logged many laps at Kentucky as a part of the Nationwide tour, and it paid off. Logano celebrated with his father in victory lane, and vaulted into the top 12 in points with miscues for Ryan Newman and Mark Martin.

    The biggest surprise was David Gilliland. Remember him? The one who won at Kentucky in 2006 with a part-time unsponsored team? He nearly did it again, finishing 8th in this Front Row Motorsports Ford.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Joey Logano

    2. Kyle Busch

    3. Carl Edwards

    4. Jeff Gordon

    5. David Reutimann

    6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    7. Brian Vickers

    8. David Gilliland

    9. Clint Bowyer

    10. David Ragan

Race #19: Loudon

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    Big Mac at Loudon.,Elsa/Getty Images

    Big Mac, Jamie McMurray wins at Loudon for his first win of 2011. Jamie led the last 37 laps, beating Clint Bowyer by 1.3 seconds at the finish.

    Both Bowyer and McMurray wanted the win badly, for their efforts to make the Chase for the Cup. With the points battle so tight from 6th on back in the points, each point is critical.

    Bowyer started on pole, but was unable to put his car in victory lane. In third place was last week's winner Joey Logano, who has put together back-to-back top five finishes.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jamie McMurray

    2. Clint Bowyer

    3. Joey Logano

    4. Carl Edwards

    5. Denny Hamlin

    6. Jeff Burton

    7. Juan Pablo Montoya

    8. Jimmie Johnson

    9. Kurt Busch

    10. Tony Stewart

Race #20: The Brickyard 400

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    Edwards gets win #3, at the Brickyard.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    For the first time in his career, Carl Edwards wins the Brickyard 400. On a day where the top ten contained ten of the top twelve drivers in points, Edwards prevailed.

    Edwards got the lead on the last pit stop, beating Jimmie Johnson off of pit road, and never looked back.

    Johnson, disgusted with his slow stop, was able to hang on to the runner up spot.

    The highlight of the day was Juan Pablo Montoya yet again missing out on the Indy trophy, after cutting a tire 38 laps in. He rebounded for a 13th place finish.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Carl Edwards

    2. Jimmie Johnson

    3. Tony Stewart

    4. Jeff Gordon

    5. Kevin Harvick

    6. Jeff Burton

    7. Denny Hamlin

    8. Kyle Busch

    9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    10. Greg Biffle

Race #21: Pocono

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    Big Daddy wins at Pocono.Al Bello/Getty Images

    One year after being let down by mother nature in the Pennsylvania 500, Jeff Gordon comes back and wins the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono.

    Starting from the pole, Gordon leads 57 of 200 laps, and is able to win by taking two tires on his last pit stop for track position.

    Denny Hamlin, who led five times for 70 laps, was unable to chase down the #24 car after taking four tires on his final stop.

    AJ Allmendinger, who ran out of gas in the spring race at Pocono rebounded with a fourth place finish thanks to a two-tire strategy.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Denny Hamlin

    3. Kurt Busch

    4. AJ Allmendinger

    5. David Reutimann

    6. Jimmie Johnson

    7. Jeff Burton

    8. Kyle Busch

    9. Joey Logano

    10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Race #22: Watkins Glen

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    Johnson picks up his first win at The Glen.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson won on a road course in 2010. Jimmie Johnson won on a road course in 2011.

    Johnson, who stayed true to his pit strategy all race long, was able to defeat teammate Jeff Gordon at Watkins Glen, winning by over three seconds.

    Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the most laps in the race, finished third due to a slow stop.

    With just four races left before the Chase for the Cup, the points are tighter than ever. Anyone from 12th to 21st in points has a chance to make the field. If Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson finish in the top ten at Michigan they will be locked into the 2011 Chase for the Cup.

     The Top Ten:

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    2. Jeff Gordon

    3. Juan Pablo Montoya

    4. Kevin Harvick

    5. Tony Stewart

    6. Ron Fellows

    7. Kurt Bush

    8. Carl Edwards

    9. Kyle Busch

    10. Denny Hamlin

Race #23: Michigan

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    Paul Menard wins his first Sprint Cup Race thanks to strategy.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    A great story has come from Sunday's race at Michigan. In a race dominated early by Roush Racing, a surprise winner was produced.

    When Brad Keselowski's engine expired with 12 laps to go, pit strategy shuffled the running order.

    Leader Carl Edwards took four tires, and restarted 17th in line.

    The leader on the restart was Regan Smith who took fuel only. Behind smith in second was Paul Menard who also took fuel only on his final stop.

    Menard was able to pass Smith after the green flag dropped, and held off a late challenge from Dale Earnhardt Jr, who took two tires on his final stop.

    The victory was Menard's first in his Sprint Cup Series career, and left he and car owner Richard Childress all smiles in victory lane.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Paul Menard

    2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    3. Kurt Busch

    4. Joey Logano

    5. Clint Bowyer

    6. Bobby Labonte

    7. Martin Truex Jr.

    8. Denny Hamlin

    9. Kyle Busch

    10. Jimmie Johnson

Race #24: Bristol

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    Busch keeps his Chase hopes alive at Bristol.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Not much can be said about the night race at Bristol, except for stating how much of a snooze fest it was. In front of an unusually small (for Bristol) crowd, Kyle Busch dominated. Busch led 347 of 500 laps en route to victory.

    The only highlight of the race was the confused under caution during a cycle of green flag stops. The caution waved, trapping Tony Stewart a lap down along with others. Stewart rebounded to finish fourth.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Kyle Busch

    2. Carl Edwards

    3. Kurt Busch

    4. Tony Stewart

    5. Brad Keselowski

    6. Jimmie Johnson

    7. Jeff Burton

    8. Kevin Harvick

    9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    10. Jeff Gordon

Race #25: Atlanta

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    Quick work helps Hamlin gain momentum.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    With a great pass on Carl Edwards with just three laps to go, Denny Hamlin got back in the saddle with win at Atlanta. The win give Hamlin a cushion on those chasing him in the race to the Chase.

    The race to The Chase has tightened up, and Kyle Busch's engine failure puts him in danger of falling out of the chase.

    Next week, the fight to get into NASCAR'S Chase for the Cup will enter its final round.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Denny Hamlin

    2. Carl Edwards

    3. Mark Martin

    4. Joey Logano

    5. Kevin Harvick

    6. Jeff Gordon

    7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    8. Jimmie Johnson

    9. Marcos Ambrose

    10. David Reutimann

Race #26: Richmond

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    Johnson leads the pack into The Chase.Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

    The Chase is set, and Jimmie Johnson will be leading them heading into Chicago. The five-time defending champion won his series-tied leading third race of the year at Richmond, and is certainly the favorite to win the Chase.

    On a night that saw the points shuffle more than a deck of cards, some tough luck and some great strategy mixed up the top 12 drivers in the Chase for the Cup.

    With a second place finish, Denny Hamlin locked himself into the Chase for the Cup, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth also locked themselves in with top 10 finishes.

    The trouble began at Kyle Busch, who started the day 9th in points. Earning the pole for the event, Busch sailed in the lead for the beginning of the race, but the lapped car of Travis Kvapil struck Busch's car when he cut a tire, and Busch was forced to the garage, and out of the 2011 Chase.

    An ill-handling race car relegated Jeff Burton to the garage, when he wrecked in lap 139. Busch and Burton fell from the top 12.

    The open slots were filled by 3rd place finisher David Ragan, 6th place Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Joey Logano.

    The Top Ten:

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    2. Denny Hamlin

    3. David Ragan

    4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    5. Jeff Gordon

    6. Jamie McMurray

    7. Matt Kenseth

    8. Joey Logano

    9. Greg Biffle

    10. Carl Edwards

    The Points are as follows:

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    2. Carl Edwards -0

    3. Jeff Gordon -0

    4. Denny Hamlin -0

    5. Tony Stewart -20

    6. Matt Kenseth -20

    7. Greg Biffle -20

    8. David Ragan -20

    9. Jamie McMurray -20

    10. Joey Logano -20

    11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -30

    12. Kevin Harvick -40

Chase Race #1: Chicago

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    Busch rolls on in Chicago.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    The Chase starts with controversy. Chase leader Jimmie Johnson is caught speeding on pit road, and gets trapped a lap down. But Johnson claims he was below on his tachometer.

    Johnson gets stuck a lap down, and finishes 21st at Chicago.

    The race winner is Kyle Busch. Furious about not making the Chase he has something to prove. The Chasers have decent days, most run in the top 15, except for Johnson there are no major incidents.

    The Top Five:

    1. Kyle Busch

    2. David Reutimann

    3. Joey Logano

    4. Carl Edwards

    5. Mark Martin

    Points leader: Carl Edwards

    2nd place: Jeff Gordon -9

    3rd place: Joey Logano - 15

Chase Race #2: Loudon

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    Logano takes over the points lead.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    A surprise at Loudon, as Joey Logano wins big. It is his third series win, and second at Loudon. The win propels Joey Logano into the top spot in points, just 5 points ahead of Carl Edwards.

    Edwards, who finished third, did not lead a lap, but was content with his finish.

    Fourth place finisher Jeff Gordon fell to third in points, behind Logano and Edwards.

    The biggest moment of the race was when Roush Racing lost two engines, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

    The other two Roush cars finished second and third respectively.

    The top 5:

    1. Joey Logano

    2. David Ragan

    3. Carl Edwards

    4. Jeff Gordon

    5. Tony Stewart

    Points Leader: Joey Logano

    2nd place: Carl Edwards -5

    3rd Place: Jeff Gordon -14

    the top 12 seperated by 177 points.

Chase Race #3: Dover

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    Tony Stewart looks strong at Dover.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Tony Stewart needed to stay in the hunt. Did he ever with a win at Dover. A great race for Stewart gave him a victory, and a one point lead over Carl Edwards in the point standings. Entering the day 57 points back in the standings, Stewart made up ground on Joey Logano, who was running second until his car's handling went away.

    Stewart is the third driver in three races to lead the points standings.

    A big blow to Earnhardt Jr.'s Championship hopes came today when he smacked the wall and went numerous laps down due to repairs.

    With 7 races remaining:

    The Top Five:

    1. Tony Stewart

    2. Kurt Busch

    3. Jimmie Johnson

    4. David Ragan

    5. Jeff Gordon

    Points leader: Tony Stewart

    2nd place: Carl Edwards -1

    3rd place: Joey Logano -9

Chase Race #4: Kansas

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    Johnson has all the momentum heading into Charlotte.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    It is a big weekend for five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. After a somewhat quiet start to the Chase, Johnson made a statement with his win at Kansas.

    As a result of misfortune of the top running Chase contenders Johnson took over the points lead.

    The most notable misfortunes of the day? Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards. Gordon suffered electrical woes as he lost power midway through the race. Edwards was the victim of a cut tire with 76 laps remaining.

    The race tightened the points race, and suddenly puts Jimmie Johnson ahead of the field yet again.

    The Top Five:

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    2. Denny Hamlin

    3. Kasey Kahne

    4. Brad Keselowski

    5. Denny Hamlin

    Points Leader: Jimmie Johnson

    2nd in points: Denny Hamlin - 9

Chase Race #5: Charlotte

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    Harvick is the man to beat at Charlotte.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick breaks through at Charlotte for a win, keeping him in the thick of the points battle. Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards bounce back from Kansas with top 5 finishes, and David Ragan remains in the thick of the points battle with a 7th place finish.

    Jimmie Johnson loses his points lead with a 12th place finish, fighting an ill-handling car all night. Denny Hamlin takes over the points lead. Making five different points leaders after five Chase races.

    The top 8 are separated by only 176 points, with Tony Stewart in 8th.

    The Charlotte Top Five:

    1. Kevin Harvick

    2. Jeff Gordon

    3. Kyle Busch

    4. Carl Edwards

    5. Martin Truex Jr.

    Points Leader: Denny Hamlin

    2nd in points: Jimmie Johnson - 13

Chase Race #6: Talladega

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    Gordon wins at Talladega.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    On a fantastic three-wide last lap pass on green-white-checkered restart leader Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon was able to win at Talladega. The win put Jeff Gordon in 2nd place in the point standings, tied with Carl Edwards.

    Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, involved in the days first incident that occurred when Regan Smith's Chevrolet was turned in the tri-oval, saw their championship hopes take a hit.

    Denny Hamlin remains the points leader heading into Martinsville.

    With just four races remaining, Carl Edwards has the upper hand in one of the tightest Chases ever.

    The Top Five:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Carl Edwards

    3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    4. Brian Vickers

    5. Martin Truex Jr.

    Points Leader: Denny Hamlin

    2nd in points: Jeff Gordon -17

    3rd in points: Carl Edwards -17

Chase Race #7: Martinsville

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    Hamlin extends points lead.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Hamlin extends his points lead by a small margin over Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards by winning at Martinsville yet again.

    Jeff Gordon finished 5th, but Carl Edwards finished 3rd.

    The race was relaxed as far as the Chasers go, not much movement in the points. But Brian Vickers gets his best finish of the year, 2nd place.

    The Top 5:

    1. Denny Hamlin

    2. Brian Vickers

    3. Carl Edwards

    4. Marcos Ambrose

    5. Jeff Gordon

    Points Leader: Denny Hamlin

    2nd in points: Carl Edwards -32

    3rd in points: Jeff Gordon -42

Chase Race #8: Texas

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    Carl Edwards Wins At Texas.Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Carl Edwards vaults to the points lead in Texas after a win. He stays above Jeff Gordon in points, and took the points lead after Denny Hamlin finished 13th.

    Edwards heads to Phoenix nursing a 20 point lead on second place Jeff Gordon. The top 7 are separated by 197 points, with Kevin Harvick in 7th.

    The Top 5:

    1. Carl Edwards

    2. Jeff Gordon

    3. Jimmie Johnson

    4. Kasey Kahne

    5. Joey Logano

    Points Leader: Carl Edwards

    2nd in Points: Jeff Gordon -20

    3rd in Points: Denny Hamlin -21

Chase Race #9: Phoenix

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    Gordon closes in heading into Homestead.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Denny Hamlin started on pole, Carl Edwards started fifth, and Jeff Gordon started sixth. The top three in points ran in the top five all night long. In the end, it was Jeff Gordon prevailing and closing in on Carl Edwards for the points lead.

    With one race left in the Chase, Carl Edwards holds on to a very slim lead ahead of Jeff Gordon.

    Denny Hamlin remains within striking distance, as does Jimmie Johnson.

    Homestead-Miami is turning into a showdown. One race...one champion.

    Who will win the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship?

    The Top Five:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Carl Edwards

    3. Denny Hamlin

    4. Kyle Busch

    5. Jamie McMurray

    Points Leader: Carl Edwards

    2nd in points: Jeff Gordon -5

    3rd in points: Denny Hamlin -26

Chase Race #10: Homestead-Miami

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    Rick Hendrick's roll continues in 2011.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    All of the great action in 2011 has come to an end. As the checkered flag waved it was Jimmie Johnson taking the win, and Rick Hendrick winning his sixth straight championship!

    Johnson's win was not enough to overtake teammate Jeff Gordon for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Gordon's first title in exactly a decade comes as a surprise as all critics expected Rich Hendrick's banner team to be the #48 Lowe's team yet again.

    Gordon beat Carl Edwards by a mere five points for his fifth championship. "Its just amazing to be back on top in this sport," said Gordon. "Its been such a long road back the championship, but I promise you...we are going to enjoy this one!"

    A disheartened Edwards said, "its disheartening. To come in here with the lead and get so close again and come up short. I am so proud of these Aflac guys. We'll have to go get 'em next year".

    Gordon's third place finish was enough to clinch the championship although Carl Edwards finished fifth.

    Denny Hamlin finished 7th, and maintained the third spot in points, over Jimmie Johnson.

    With Rick Hendrick's sixth straight title, heading into 2012 there is only one question. Who can stop Hendrick Motorsports incredible streak?

    The Top Five:

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    2. Kasey Kahne

    3. Jeff Gordon

    4. Kyle Busch

    5. Carl Edwards

    Final Points Standings:

    1. Jeff Gordon

    2. Carl Edwards -5

    3. Denny Hamlin -36

    4. Jimmie Johnson -41

    5. Tony Stewart -98

    6. Joey Logano -123

    7. Kevin Harvick -201

    8. Dale Eanhardt Jr. -211

    9. David Ragan -243

    10. Jamie McMurray -244

    11. Matt Kenseth -301

    12. Greg Biffle -322

    2011 Nationwide Champon: Elliott Sadler

    2011 Camping World Truck Champion: Brendan Gaughan

Closing Thoughts

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Okay okay, so you may not agree with anything you just read.

    "You're crazy!", you may say, but I truly believe this is how it will unfold.

    Will I be right? Most likely not. After all, the real future isn't written yet.

    I will make you this promise though: the 2011 NASCAR season is going to be a great one. The countdown to Daytona is on!