Biggest racing stories of 2011
Dan Wheldon suffered a premature death months after his unlikely Indy 500 win
Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson's five-year title reign in spectacular fashion
Busch brothers got their just deserts; Danica left IndyCar behind for NASCAR
1. Dan Wheldon is killed in an IndyCar crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There is no shortage of sadness surrounding the death of Wheldon, at age 33, only 11 laps into the final race of the IndyCar season. A wife lost a husband, two small boys a father. A community lost a friend, a series lost one of its most charismatic and talented. But ultimately one of the most mournful aspects of Wheldon's death is it may never spark the type of safety evolution that followed the high-profile racing deaths of the likes of Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt. Certainly, IndyCar has professed a desire to make one of the most dangerous forms of motor sports safer, and drivers have profusely supported the series' good intentions, but respected industry veteran and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammell said the series missed an opportunity to make the new IndyCar vehicle as safe as possible.
The release of IndyCar's accident report last week asserted that Wheldon's death occurred because of a confluence of interlocked but unrelated factors that led to him striking a catch fence pole with his head. IndyCar absolved every individual factor in the crash while focusing on what it claimed was unforeseen "limitless" speed and maneuverability around the Las Vegas track, even though drivers had warned of such before the season. Most notably, Marco Andretti observed, "From the looks of it, the circuit should be easily wide open, which is going to create a big pack. It's going to be fun for the fans. I like those races, but it'll be dangerous." Categorizing the factors that led to Wheldon's death as a sad, unavoidable occurrence, therefore, would be a tragedy.
2. Jimmie Johnson is dethroned. The inevitable finally occurred for the five-time defending series champion in 2011. Johnson hardly imploded, qualifying for the Chase for a record eighth consecutive time, but he notched a new low in victories (two) and finished sixth, his lowest finish in his full-time Sprint Cup career. With his team, including crew chief Chad Knaus, set to return for 2012, Johnson vowed a recharged mentality and a return to prominence.
3. Danica Patrick leaves IndyCar for NASCAR. In one of the most anticipated and completely unsurprising moves in recent years, open-wheel racing's most popular driver -- and one of the most recognizable figures in sports -- left Andretti Autosport for a full-time Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports and a concurrent 10-race Sprint Cup work-study program with Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick, 29, finished her IndyCar career with a win (in 2008) in 115 starts and in 2009 she finished a career-best fifth in the points. This season she finished 10th for the second consecutive year.
It will be interesting to see if Patrick blends into a universe of current NASCAR stars or stakes her own identity. Her on-track results have been validating enough, with a top-five and three top-10s in 12 Nationwide races in 2011, and a fourth-place finish in the Nationwide Series at Las Vegas where she became the highest-finishing female in a NASCAR top-three series. Her expected bid to start in the Daytona 500 is likely to consume Speed Weeks.
4. Trevor Bayne wins the Daytona 500. The fresh-faced 20-year-old (plus one day) from Tennessee scripted a storybook beginning to the Sprint Cup season when he won NASCAR's greatest race in his second series start, taking the fabled Woods Brothers back to Victory Lane for the first time in a decade. The youngest to win NASCAR's most prestigious race, Bayne benefited from a fortuitous set of events, including race-leader David Ragan's late penalty on a restart. It was all part of the drama. For the Wood Brothers, a pioneer team now reduced to a part-time schedule, the win was a nostalgic return to glory; their last win at Daytona came in 1976. For Bayne and a sport in need of young stars, it seemed like a beachhead, but Bayne's season was fitful. He competed in a planned partial Cup season in the fabled No. 21 Ford, but missed five Nationwide events after being treated for Lyme's disease.
5. Dan Wheldon wins the Indianapolis 500. A moment of calamity provided the backdrop for one of the more popular victories in recent racing history. Rookie J.R. Hildebrand's crash on the final turn opened a path for Wheldon to win his second Indy 500 after leading just one lap. Wheldon, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner, had returned to his favorite track on a one-off deal with friend and former teammate Bryan Herta, who had a strategic alliance with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. That Hildebrand replaced Wheldon at Panther Racing under contentious circumstances made the win rich in irony, and validated the fact that Wheldon was a needed part of the series on a full-time basis. The images of Wheldon with wife, Susie, and sons Sebastian and Oliver after the victory became ever poignant since his death.
6. Tony Stewart wins a third Sprint Cup title. He was so unimpressed by his team's performance late in the regular season that he declared himself a waste of a playoff berth, but Tony Stewart validated himself quickly in the Chase, winning the first two playoff races. He would then go on to wear down Carl Edwards by capturing three of the final four to win his third championship at NASCAR's highest level. Few drivers are as potent as a focused Stewart.
7. Dario Franchitti wins a fourth (and third straight) IndyCar title. The 38-year-old Scot had a tempestuous route to his latest conquest of the IndyCar series, finishing it in tears during a five-lap salute to Wheldon at Las Vegas. Feisty as usual, Franchitti sparred for every point of scoring and point of order with his chief foil, Will Power. He wouldn't apologize for not being collegial with someone trying to take away his title. Franchitti went on to win four races, swiping the points lead from Power with one race remaining when Power was involved in a pit road incident. His late-career bloom shows no signs of fading, and he said he's nowhere near retiring.
8. Kyle Busch unhinges. Yet again the uniquely talented 26-year-old Sprint Cup veteran of seven full seasons utterly cratered in the Chase for the Championship. Despite winning four regular-season races and entering the playoffs as points leader, Busch finished 22nd or worse in half of the Chase races and plummeted to 12th in the final standings. His season -- which featured the requisite amount of regular-season antics, specifically with Kevin Harvick -- bottomed out when Joe Gibbs parked him at Texas for punting championship contender Ron Hornaday Jr. out of retaliation in a Truck race.
9. Kurt Busch cut loose. An interesting six-year relationship ended with what Busch and Penske Racing deemed a mutual agreement. Team owner Roger Penske recruited the 2004 series champion as a young man, signed him to replace the retiring Rusty Wallace, then endured the by-products of working with a driver with admitted anger and interpersonal relationship issues. He even let Busch get away with calling him "dude" on team radio in 2009. But Busch's collective baggage outweighed his 10 wins and immense potential, and a series of vitriolic exchanges with crew and media preceded the split. Penske has since hired A.J. Allmendinger to replace Busch in the No. 22 Dodge, but Busch, who has already worked for two of the top organizations in racing, is still looking for the next, best opportunity for his considerable capabilities.
10. F1 ... or two? First there was a proposed race at Austin, Texas. Then there was a street race in New Jersey. Now the United States is set to host a Grand Prix next year for the first time since the last race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007. New Jersey should join the schedule in 2013. Too much? Not enough? F1 head Bernie Ecclestone told Al Jazeera last week that the series' future in the United States remains dubious.
"We've got a maximum of two races in America and when you consider the country is as big as Europe and we've got several races in Europe, it's difficult," he told the network. "If we had a lot more races there and a lot more television it would be OK. It's a bit like the rest of America in that they want to see a profit before they start something and it's not easy to do that."