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Top-10 NASCAR moments of 2011

Last week, NASCAR revealed the top-10 moments of the 2011 race season, as voted on my members of the motorsports media. The results are as follows:

10. Last year's top rookies follow up with series championships

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rebounded from a tumultuous start to his rookie Nationwide campaign of 2010 to wind up being the series' top rookie last year. He followed that up with a sophomore campaign in 2011 that included his first two career wins in Nationwide competition to claim the championship driver's trophy.

Unlike Stenhouse, Camping World Truck Series driver Austin Dillon experienced a stellar rookie season in 2010 that included trips to victory lane. He topped his Rookie of the Year season with a Truck Series championship year in 2011 to become the youngest champion in series history.

The 2011 season was the first in NASCAR history during which both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series champions were the previous season's Rookies of the Year.

9. Danica Patrick makes history

Danica Patrick embarked on her second part-time season in the Nationwide Series in 201, and it resulted in a history-making year for the sanctioning body. A fourth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March wasn't only the driver's first career top-five, it was also a history-making finish for NASCAR.

Patrick's top-five was the highest-ever finish for a female across all of NASCAR's national level. The previous best was a fifth-place finish by Sara Christian in 1949.

8. Austin Dillon breaks through age barrier

Prior to 2011, 2003 Camping World Truck Series champion Travis Kvapil was the only driver in series history to claim a championship before the age of 30. Austin Dillon became the second by claiming the 2011 title at the age of 21, making him the youngest champion in Camping World Truck Series history.

7. Paul Menard victorious at the Brickyard

The 2011 season was the year of the first-time winner. Paul Menard joined that group by wining one of the biggest races of the year -- the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July.

With the win, Menard became the first NASCAR driver to claim his first career Sprint Cup win at Indianapolis.

6. Jimmie Johnson for the win at Talladega

The Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in April was one for the record books. It matched the record for lead changes -- with 88 -- set the prior season and the record for closest margin of victory since the implementation of electronic scoring, with Johnson winning by a margin of 0.002 seconds. The win moved Johnson from fourth to second in points, and the close finish involved all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers -- Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.

5. Regan Smith gets first win at Darlington

Regan Smith joined the ranks of Sprint Cup Series race winners with a win in one of NASCAR's historic events -- the Showtime Southern 500. What made the first win for both driver and Furniture Row Racing even more impressive was that it was Smith's first top-10 finish in 105 starts. Smith's first laps led in the race came with 11 to go, and he stayed up front the rest of the way.

4. Jeff Gordon moves on up

Jeff Gordon fell short of claiming his fifth Sprint Cup title in 2011, but it was still a memorable year for the veteran driver. Gordon tied NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third on the all-time win list when he claimed victory at Pocono Raceway, his second win of the year, in June for his 84th win.

Gordon made a third trip to victory lane in 2011, winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway in September, to claim sole possession of third on the all-time win list with his 85th victory. The only two drivers with more Sprint Cup wins are David Pearson with 105 and Richard Petty with 200, both members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

3. Brad Keselowski rebounds at Pocono.

Brad Keselowski looked to be well out of Chase for the Sprint Cup consideration by the time he broke his left ankle and injured his back in a test crash at Road Atlanta. Just a few days later, though, he claimed his second win of the season at one of NASCAR's toughest tracks -- Pocono Raceway.

Keselowski went on to claim a third win at Bristol Motor Speedway, made his way into the Chase and finished out the year fifth in points.

2. Trevor Bayne has the best day at Daytona

After a day spent working with Jeff Gordon in the two-car draft, Bayne led six laps after starting 32nd en route to becoming the youngest-ever winner of NASCAR's biggest race -- the Daytona 500.

One day after his 20th birthday, Bayne turned his first start at Daytona in his first-career Sprint Cup win. the victory was the 600th for Ford and the 98th for the historic Wood Brothers Racing organization.

1. Championship battle goes down to the wire.

The 2011 two-man championship battle waged between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart was a history-making one. In the first nine races of the 10-race Chase, Edwards and Stewart raced to a draw, points-wise. Edwards' three-point advantage heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was a result of the win he claimed prior to the start of the Chase.

Stewart barely made his way into the Chase, going winless in NASCAR's "regular season." He hit a hot streak, though, during the Chase, claiming wins in four of the first nine races. Meanwhile, Edwards was winless in the Chase, instead staying in contention with consistency.

The only way for Stewart to win the championship, regardless of how Edwards performed was to lead the most laps and win the race. Stewart did just that, and with Edwards finishing the race in second position, the two drivers finished the year tied atop the points standings.

Stewart claimed his third Sprint Cup title by winning more races that Edwards. Stewart made five trips to victory lane to Edwards' one. It was the first time in Sprint Cup Series history that the champion was determined by tie breaker.

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Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media



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