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IT WAS THE MOST ARRESTING RACE OF THE CHASE ERA. HERE WAS TONY STEWART, CHARGING FOR his fifth win in the 2011 playoffs, hurtling around Homestead-Miami Speedway in first place in the Ford 400, only 32 laps from winning the third Cup championship of his career. Hot on his tail in second place was the season's most dominant driver, Carl Edwards, who had entered the final race with a three-point lead over Stewart. For nearly 20 minutes, as the duo sped around the 1.5-mile oval in the gathering darkness, the 73,000 fans at the speedway stood riveted as each driver pushed his car to its red-line limit. In the infield media center even longtime motor sports writers, who had claimed to have seen it all, sat on the edge of their seats—literally—shouting that they'd never witnessed a championship battle like this.
Think about it: After nine months of racing and more than 14,000 total miles of bumping and grinding for position on tracks across America, some 50 feet separated Stewart and Edwards. Before the start of the season NASCAR chairman Brian France had openly pined for a Game 7 moment in the Chase. Now he had just that.
Indeed, as France watched the closing laps at Homestead from NASCAR's race control headquarters high above the finish line, he had plenty to be joyous about: 2011 was a comeback year for NASCAR. After enduring season after season during which TV ratings and attendance fell dramatically, NASCAR saw an uptick in both last year. Ratings rose an average of 10% (and were up 19% in the 18-to-34 male demographic), and attendance was up at nearly half the tracks. Online sales of official NASCAR merchandise were up 54% from '10, and companies such as Quicken Loans and Farmers Insurance signed on to be long-term primary sponsors for the first time.
So how did a sport that was on life support suddenly become vibrant? The answer begins on the track, where the quality of racing in 2011 was as high as it has been since the Chase format was introduced in '04. Specifically the double-file restarts after a caution flag—an idea that NASCAR implemented in June '09—injected several shots of adrenaline into every event. These restarts often created three-, four-, even five-wide racing through the corners after the green flag waved. Drivers frantically tried to execute passes, sometimes playing bumper cars at 180 mph. In the season finale at Homestead, Stewart sailed by 118 cars, most of which he passed moments after a restart.
"As a driver you hate the double-file restarts because you're white-knuckling the steering wheel the whole time," says Stewart. "But it sure as hell makes for a great show." These restarts have become one of the most crucial—and dicey—components of Cup racing. To win the title this fall, a driver will have to be the way Stewart was at Homestead: aggressive, calculating and, above all, cunning.
The action outside of the race cars was also compelling, and also promises excitement in 2012. Two years ago NASCAR issued the "Boys, have at it" edict, intending for drivers to police themselves both on and off the track. (In the past officials were quick to clamp down on any extracurricular activity at the races, calling drivers to the NASCAR hauler like kids to the principal's office.) Now if a driver felt that a competitor had treated him unfairly, he could take matters into his own hands.
But it wasn't until 2011 that the boys truly did have at it. After the Darlington race in May, Kevin Harvick got out of his car to throw a punch at Kyle Busch through Busch's window, prompting Busch to bump Harvick's empty car into the wall. At Kansas Speedway in June, 65-year-old team owner Richard Childress, who thought Busch had messed with one of his drivers on the track, put Busch in a headlock in the garage. And at Watkins Glen in August, driver Boris Said vowed that Greg Biffle would get "a friggin' whuppin' " after the two took swings at each other after the race.
The feuding wasn't all that serious—no one was ever bloodied, after all—but by relaxing its rules on driver conduct, NASCAR clearly got what it wanted: more soap-opera-like subplots. (Harvick, Busch and Childress were still fined, but the punishment amounted to little more than wrist slaps.) Those soap operas are set to pick up where they left off—and others seem sure to emerge.
If there's carryover on the naughtiness, there should also be carryover on what may have been the best news of all for France and NASCAR: The possibility of Dale Earnhardt Jr. contending for a championship. Last season, for the first time since 2008, Earnhardt qualified for the Chase. Though he had only one top five run in the playoffs, and finished seventh in the final standings, the fact that NASCAR's most popular driver (as voted on by the fans for each of the last nine years) was back in the lead pack was a boon to the sport. "No matter how you slice it, no one in NASCAR moves the needle more than Dale does," says Carl Edwards. "It's good for everyone when he does well."
It's also good for NASCAR when fresh blood enlivens the racing. In 2011 there were five first-time winners, the most since '02. What's more, 18 different drivers reached Victory Lane last season, which was one short of the record set in '01. These numbers reflect one thing: There's more parity in NASCAR today then there has been in years. And that has resonated with fans. "It used to be that only a handful of guys had a real chance to win races," says Stewart. "Now, on any given Sunday, there are as many as 20 that have a legitimate shot."