Paul Menard Wins at Indy and the Top 10 Surprises of the 2011 NASCAR Season

Ryan Papaserge@@RyanPapasergeCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2011

Paul Menard Wins at Indy and the Top 10 Surprises of the 2011 NASCAR Season

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    When Paul Menard shocked the racing world by winning his "home" race in the Brickyard 400 last month, it was far from the first shocking moment in the 2011 NASCAR season.

    The Sprint Cup Series has seen an influx of first-time winners, while a new points system in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series has allowed for breakout drivers and surprises atop the points standings.

    Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Surprises of the 2011 NASCAR season.

Rookie Trevor Bayne Wins Daytona 500

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    The drama will be spared, as this list will begin with the most obvious choice.

    When Bayne drove the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to the finish line in the "Great American Race," he completed one of the biggest upsets in sports history, not just NASCAR history.

    The 20-year-old Tennessean won in just his second Sprint Cup start and returned the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane for the first time since March 2001 at Bristol.

    Little did anyone know that this landmark moment would be far from the last shocker NASCAR fans would see this year.

Rookie Cole Whitt Briefly Leads Camping World Truck Series Points

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    Sure, Cole Whitt was a much-heralded driver and a product of Red Bull Racing's developmental system. Sure, Whitt was a rookie driving for Stacy Compton's Turn One Racing—not the wealthiest team on the Camping World Truck Series circuit.

    That didn't stop the 18-year-old from putting together such a strong first seven races to the 2011 season (two top-fives, five top-10s) that he actually led the points standings by a single counter over Johnny Sauter following the May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Whitt has since leveled off a bit, falling to fifth in the standings, 35 points behind current leader Austin Dillion. Still, his name will become ubiquitous in the NASCAR landscape during "Silly Season," as the uncertain future of Red Bull Racing has put his 2012 plans in limbo.

Regan Smith, Colorado's Furniture Row Racing Win Showtime Southern 500

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    Furniture Row Racing is based out of Denver—a real Rocky Mountain hotbed of racing activity.

    Regan Smith was a much-unheralded talent who scratched and clawed his way into what would become a full-time ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008. He should have had one win to his credit, a wild photo finish with Tony Stewart in what had become a demolition derby in October of that year. The win was originally awarded to him, but it was later decided that he had gone below the yellow line in blocking Stewart, giving "Smoke" the win.

    In May, these two forces united to beat the lofty odds against them. Furniture Row proved they could complete, while Smith, the New Yorker, finally got redemption for his past problems.

    Smith stayed out while then-leader Carl Edwards and most of the field went on pit road in the late stages of the race, and held off the charging herd to win his first career Sprint Cup race.

Carl Edwards Wins Sprint All-Star Race, Wrecks Car in Post-Race Celebration

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    There's a lesson to be learned from all of this: If you're going to do some victory donuts in the infield grass at Charlotte Motor Speedway, make sure you're not going to hit a manhole or a vent while doing so.

Justin Allgaier Sputters to Finish at Chicagoland Speedway in Fuel-Mileage End

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    Little-known fact: The best Nationwide Series races at Chicagoland Speedway usually involve a surprise winner and fuel mileage at play. (Who can forget the infamous Mike Wallace-Justin Labonte classic in 2004?)

    This time around, Justin Allgaier was the beneficiary, taking advantage after Carl Edwards ran out of gas in the lead on the final lap to win his second career Nationwide race—barely. Allgaier sputtered to the start-finish line, unable to properly celebrate with his car in Victory Lane. 

Reed Sorenson Survives Frantic Final Lap at Road America

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    When a road course race in the Nationwide Series is considered surprising, you know it's a pretty crazy finish.

    Case in point: the June race at Road America, a four-mile course in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. Let's stress that again: a four-mile course.

    Normally a 50-lap race, the event went 57 laps after a trio of attempts at a green-white-checkered finish. Justin Allgaier took the white flag when Aric Almirola's car stalled after running out of gas. Allgaier had the race locked up at that point—until he ran out of gas midway through the final lap. 

    Ron Fellows then tried to pass Reed Sorenson to take the lead. There's one thing he failed to realize, however: he made the pass under yellow, thus nullifying the pass. (He probably should have been black-flagged for speeding up during a caution, but that's a moot point.)

    Sorenson wound up winning the race, putting a cap to one of the craziest finishes in motorsports history.

David Ragan Breaks Through at Daytona

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    In what may have amounted to a job-saving performance, David Ragan finally won his first Sprint Cup race in his 163rd start at Daytona International Speedway in July.

    It also placed Ragan in the thick of the Wild Card hunt in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Final Camping World Truck Race at Lucas Oil Raceway Features LONG Green-Flag Run

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    The last Camping World Truck Series race at Lucas Oil Raceway (better known as Indianapolis Raceway Park) in Clermont, Ind. started off like many others before it at the legendary short-track, with four cautions in the first 93 laps. 

    To the surprise of many, the final 107 laps featured a grand total of zero cautions—unheard of at any short-track not named Toyota Speedway at Irwindale.

    Timothy Peters passed James Buescher with six laps to go to score his third career Truck win.

Brad Keselowski Develops into the Chase's Top Wild Card

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    If a NASCAR fan were to name one of the drivers back in February who would be in one of the Wild Card spots heading into Watkins Glen, few would have named Brad Keselsowski as a possible contender.

    Lo and behold, he is. After taking advantage of skillful fuel strategy to win at Kansas Speedway in June, "Special K" lived up to his nickname at Pocono last weekend, leading the final 16 laps to hold off a surging Kyle Busch to win his second Sprint Cup race of the season.

    He's the fifth Sprint Cup driver to reach multiple wins this season, and the only one to have multiple wins outside of the Top 10.

Paul Menard Wins at the Brickyard

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    You really didn't think we'd leave the namesake of this slideshow off the list, wouldn't you?

    You've read everything there is to read about the Brickyard 400 at this point, but it's still quite surprising that Paul Menard held off Jeff Gordon—one of the all-time greats at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—to win his first career Sprint Cup race in one of the sport's "Crown Jewels."

    Thoughts? Comment below.


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