NASCAR's 20 Most Important People of 2011

David DeNennoContributor IIIJanuary 10, 2012

NASCAR's 20 Most Important People of 2011

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    2011 evolved into a strong year for NASCAR. Though the overall economy continued to slump and unemployment remained virtually the same, the organization had its best year in recent memory.

    Financially, ticket sales and merchandise increased modestly. More importantly, the season was one of the most exciting in the history of the sport.

    Although the NASCAR product is a team effort, certain individuals lend a stronger helping hand than most to the whole.

    Here are 20 such individuals, though it should not be forgotten that thousands of individuals are also responsible for contributing to the comprehensive result that is NASCAR.

Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski's season was characterized by strong highs and equally depressing lows.

    The first part of his season was abysmal. Up until he won the regular season race in Kansas in June, his season appeared to be caught in the slow whirl of a flushing toilet.

    Then, he broke his ankle on a practice course in Atlanta.

    The very next week, with his ankle not fully healed, he won his second race of the year at Pocono.

    He ripped off a third victory at Bristol and guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase. He represents the true spirit of the 2011 introduction of the wildcard.

    Without it, his poor performance during the the first part of the regular season could have cost him dearly. Although he would have made the Chase based on points with only one win, his multiple wins truly placed the emphasis on checkered flags—the primal inspiration for the wildcard.

Marcos Ambrose

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    After nearly getting his first win at Infineon Raceway in 2010, Marcos Ambrose was finally able to seal the deal at Watkins Glen in August of 2011.

    This was an important victory, as he became only the second foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. These types of victories help NASCAR grow audiences and fans around the world.

    I did not truly realize the significance of this victory until, upon going to work the next day, I overheard two Australian men discussing the race and their fellow countrymen's victory.

    Until that point in time, I had never heard any foreigner discuss NASCAR in any sort of depth. 

Trevor Bayne

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    Trevor Bayne may never win another Sprint Cup race again. 

    Despite this, he etched his name into NASCAR's collective conscious by shocking the racing community with a victory at the Daytona 500, kicking off the 2011 season.

    No one knew it at the time, but this foreshadowed an almost equally unlikely championship run at the end of the season.

Dan Wheldon

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    Although Dan Wheldon was not affiliated with NASCAR, the NASCAR community was certainly deeply affected by his untimely death in Las Vegas.

    It was an unfortunate reminder that though modern professional racing is safer than ever before, death still lurks at every turn and gives no quarter to talent, popularity or prestige.

    R.I.P.

Richie Evans

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    Former nine-time Whelen Modified Tour champion Richie Evans was posthumously confirmed a member of the third class of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees in 2011.

    He will be deservedly enshrined at the end of January, 2012.

    Like Dan Wheldon, he was killed in a race car.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt, Jr. continues to be an important figure on the NASCAR scene.

    In addition to winning his ninth consecutive "Most Popular Driver" award, he once again battled his way into the Chase after an extended hiatus and finished decently in seventh place overall.

    He has a certain natural appeal that simply cannot be overlooked.

Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick's announcement that she would be racing full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2012 was major news in 2011.

    Her continued success is of major interest to the NASCAR organization. Hopefully, she will able to strengthen her abilities in stock cars and, in the near future, become a full-time Sprint Cup driver.

    This development can only help NASCAR in the future.

Glen Wood

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    As owner and founder of the Wood Brothers Racing team, Glen Wood enjoyed a magical first half of 2011.

    He was confirmed as a Hall of Fame inductee in June. Prior to that, his car was piloted to a win at the Daytona 500 by the aforementioned Trevor Bayne.

Kurt Busch

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    It is not what Kurt Busch did in 2011 specifically that gets him a spot on this list. Rather, it is what happened to him after the season concluded.

    Kurt Busch became a sort of living jeremiad, a warning, for the conduct of drivers on the track as well as off of it.

    Despite the prestige of being a former champion and making the 2011 Chase, he was released by Roger Penske and replaced by A.J. Allmendinger, a driver with no career wins.

    This represented a paradigm shift in the attitude towards drivers by their owners and sponsors: No one can rest on past laurels if their behavior becomes overly incorrigible and abrasive.

Kasey Kahne

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    The quiet and unassuming Kasey Kahne made major noise during the course of the 2011 Chase.

    Driving for a team (Red Bull Racing) that announced the suspension of NASCAR racing operations in 2012, Kahne still showed heart and tenacity by winning the second-to-last race of the season in Phoenix and performing better than most Chase drivers during the entire course of the Chase.

    Without a doubt, the performance of Kahne at the end of 2011, coupled with his 2012 transition to the juggernaut of Hendrick Motorsports, could be the genesis of a major star in future seasons.

Jimmie Johnson

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    Close to 90 percent of the season had analysts and fans alike speculating as to whether or not five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson could reach into the refrigerator and grab a six-pack.

    It was not to be, though Johnson was a serious contender for the title with only a handful of races remaining.

    Either way, he released his own video game (Jimmie Johnson's Anything with an Engine) and met President Barack Obama at the White House.

    He will continue to be a major persona in NASCAR for years to come. 

Jeff Gordon

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    Completing the sweep of Hendrick Motorsports' current drivers in this list of most important NASCAR individuals, Jeff Gordon's 2011 season cannot be forgotten.

    Before 2011 commenced, speculation had begun as to whether his NASCAR career had all but stalled.

    "The Kid" showed some of the poise of his youth by winning thrice, making the Chase and placing himself third on the all-time list of wins by a driver.

    Not bad for a guy pushing 40 years old.

Cale Yarborough

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    The question was not so much as if, but when.

    Cale Yarborough, three-time consecutive NASCAR champion and winner of four Daytona 500s, was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011.

    Frankly, it took a bit too long.

Mike Helton

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    NASCAR President Mike Helton had an important decision to make after witnessing the actions of Kyle Busch in Texas.

    This was a make-or-break decision.

    After Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday in the Camping World Truck Series race under caution, Helton was left with a difficult decision.

    Ultimately, he decided only to park Busch for one race and put him on probation for the remaining part of 2011 (less than two months).

    A harsher decision, say a one-year suspension, could have put a serious damper on Shrub's future success and sponsorship in Sprint Cup racing.

Kyle Busch

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    It is quite likely that most people will forget that Kyle Busch actually finished the NASCAR regular season tied for the most victories with Kevin Harvick.

    Rather, the image that will be remembered and replayed in ensuing years is his yellow-flag wreck of Ron Hornaday and the drama that followed it.

    With few exceptions, this was the biggest story of 2011.

    He should be forever grateful for NASCAR President Mike Helton's leniency.

Dale Inman

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    Dale Inman is another member of the 2011 class of Hall of Fame inductees. Like Cale Yarborough, the question of his induction was only a matter of time.

    He was the crew chief for eight championship Cup teams. In other words, he is the most successful individual in NASCAR history at its highest level.

    I am sure Richard Petty sends him at least a warm Christmas card every year.

Darrell Waltrip

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    Rounding out the class of 2011 Hall of Fame inductees is Darrell Waltrip.

    He truly needs no introduction, as he continues to be a prevalent personality on the modern NASCAR scene, unlike the members of his fellow class.

    He has also become a sort of NASCAR ambassador to the world, even traveling to Australia twice this year to broadcast V8 Supercar races in the Land Down Under.

    "Boogity, Boogity, Boggity! Let's go racing, boys!"

Darian Grubb

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    Crew chief Darian Grubb is living proof that ultimate success does not breed a steady job.

    He was basically fired by his driver/team owner, Tony Stewart, before showing his mettle and guiding the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobile One Chevrolet to the single greatest Chase performance in the history of its existence.

    His efforts did not go unnoticed. He was given, almost immediately upon the conclusion of the 2011 campaign, a plum job at Joe Gibbs Racing as the new crew chief for the No. 11 FedEx Toyota driven by Denny Hamlin. 

Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards is No. 2 because he possibly finished the most painful second place in overall points in NASCAR's illustrious history. He lost on a tie and a technicality.

    Perhaps there will be gold at the end of the 2012 rainbow.

    The final weeks of the 2011 NASCAR season were all about Edwards and his unlikely Chase rival.

    I wonder if Carl Edwards stays awake at night asking himself, "What if I had not committed that pit row speeding violation in Dover?"

    What if...what if...what if?

Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart overcame a regular season devoid of victory by setting the bar quite high to which all great Chase seasons will be compared in the future.

    He also held off the strongest second-place finisher in the history of the sport.

    Anyone who does not agree that Smoke is the most important person in NASCAR in 2011 can opine as to why he or she feels as such in the comments section provided below.

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