Despite any outstanding individual performance, the overall Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2011 has no equal since its inculcation in 2004.
It has never been more hotly contested. Roush Fenway Racing should not be ashamed.
Half of the field was truly considered a strong contender for the title at some point during the 10-race shootout.
Though it boiled down to only two at the climax, this made for perhaps the greatest theatre that NASCAR has ever been able to put on a racetrack.
Most likely, this situation will never again present itself in quite the same manner as 2011.
Just in case any further proof or arguments are needed, here are five reasons why:
This is not a personal knock on the five-time champion himself. But NASCAR, in order to grow and branch out, needed a new story to feed the wonder of the Chase.
Though the Chase had intrigued many fans and casual observers, it undoubtedly grew tiresome to see the same driver win five consecutive years. To his credit, Jimmie Johnson certainly achieved this feat in various fashions.
He dominated. He overcame deficits. He came from behind after being left for dead, etc. etc.
In 2011, one former champ and a new player were introduced back into the fold of actually winning the title.
It gave the sport a new flavor and injected some freshness into a product that had perhaps sat on the shelf just a bit too long.
The Chase format undoubtedly still has many "haters," some of whom will probably never accept the system as a legitimate formula to determine a Sprint Cup champion.
However, this is the exact scenario that NASCAR, as a sanctioning body, envisioned when it initially decided to give the green light on such a novel idea.
2011 was a dream for NASCAR as an organization. Attendance increased 10 percent. It was able to put on one of the best championship displays in recent memory, which will almost undoubtedly lead to increased ticket sales in 2012.
This is just what the sport needed. It was the right time and the right place. I am sure corporate jaws are still hanging on the ground with just how well the whole season progressed.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. If Tony Stewart's NASCAR season in 2011 was written as a movie, almost no sane human being would regard it as anything more than fantastical entertainment.
But it happened.
It had all the elements of the typical "hero overcoming odds" Hollywood script:
1. A once great champion, though still competitive, is starting to enter the twilight of a great career.
2. Despite his greatest effort, he meets adversity at every step. He does not quit, but the situation looks very bleak.
3. He experiences serious self doubt. (Remember that Tony Stewart himself proclaimed that he did not deserve to make the Chase because he honestly thought it was a waste of a spot for a more deserving driver.)
4. He enters a new realm and experiences small success.
5. Our hero translates this small success into the greatest success in the sport. He climbs to the summit and raises the trophy.
It sounds very corny, but this is a watered-down version of the reality that was Tony Stewart's season in 2011.
NASCAR usually bills itself as a 43-man fight to the finish. This was not the case during the last race of 2011.
It would seem that having more participants involved in the final race would be more exciting, but the opposite proved true.
It was a heavyweight slug-fest, man to man. It was the "Cavalcade in Miami-Dade" and the "Bombs on the Palms." Every event played out perfectly to pit the final men left standing to duel it out to the finish.
Though it looked like Stewart would be hindered with some grill damage inadvertently caught early, he never wavered. His response to the situation was simply that everyone would feel worse for losing to him because he had to go to the back of the pack.
This may be the beginning of the best friendly rivalry in all of NASCAR. Both Edwards and Stewart obviously share a healthy amount of respect for each others' talents. It would be wonderful to see them continue this healthy and respectful rivalry.
I am going to present this in BLUF format. For those unaware, BLUF means "Bottom line up front."
Seasoned NASCAR fans know well that they just witnessed one of the great performances in the history of the sport. Additionally, they know well too that said great performance was not relegated to champion Tony Stewart only, but also Carl Edwards.
It could not be a closer finish. Tony Stewart won the race by a fairly safe margin but he finished in a tie for points. His only saving grace was the wins he wracked up in the Chase.
If any NASCAR fan cares to opine about the lack of emphasis on winning, look no further than the 2011 Chase. It was all about winning. Winning is what made Tony Stewart a three-time NASCAR champion.
This was the best Chase and playoff contention in any sport, in recent memory.
The conundrum is not so much whether this was the best NASCAR season of the century. That is beyond doubt. Rather, the question that should be posed is where does the 2011 NASCAR season rank among the greats in NASCAR history?