Commentary: Top Five Deciding Moments of the 2011 Chase for the Championship

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, celebrates with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 and the 2011 Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2011 in Homestead, Florida. Stewart wins his third NASCAR Championship. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Some are calling it the most compelling championship finale of all time.

Sans the 1992 Atlanta conclusion that saw Alan Kulwicki defeat Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, Harry Gant, Mark Martin and Kyle Petty (Yes. Six Contenders still eligible entering the final race, WITHOUT the help of a playoff format), they just might be right.

We're calling it destiny.

After 36 races, Tony Stewart outlasted Carl Edwards via a tiebreaker to win the Sprint Cup Series Championship in an engaging wire-to-wire battle that is at best, improbable and unlikely to ever happen again.

Just as a World Series or Super Bowl isn't decided on one game or a single series of plays, neither was this year's Chase for the Championship. It's difficult to pin down just one defining moment where Tony Stewart re-ascended to the top of stock car auto racing so we instead selected the top five moments that ultimately decided the 2011 Chase for the Championship.

Check them out after the jump!

1. Brian France's January State of the Sport Address

The most relevant moment in the Chase actually occurred before the season began when Brian France issued his state of the sport address on Jan. 26 where he first announced changes to the points paying system, including the 1-43 points payout and two wild card spots for Chase positions 11 and 12 for the top race winners in the top 20. The changes were intended to make winning more important with race winners receiving a maximum of 48 points and three Chase bonus points per win once the Chase began. The most points second place could hope to receive was 44.

As it turned out, the 2011 champion (Stewart) led the Series with five wins (all during the Chase) giving ultimate credence to those calling for making wins more important. In addition, the championship came down to a tie, with the tie-breaker going to Stewart on the basis that he had more wins - five to Edwards' lone victory.

2. Stewart Wins Chicagoland on Fuel-Mileage, Sets Tone for Championship

Had Tony Stewart sputtered out of fuel and not won at Chicagoland, following a mediocre 26-race regular season where he called his presence in the Chase undeserving, who knows if Smoke could have drawn any momentum from his team or his manufacturer.

Up until that point, most professional pundits had severe doubts that Stewart could go on the type of run that he did starting in Joliet.

Boy were so many of us wrong.

3. Jimmie Johnson

What's more impressive - winning five-straight Sprint Cup Series Championships or becoming the team and driver that ended such an epic streak. That's the question many of us will likely be asking following last Sunday's Ford 400. The larger overarching point is that the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship was going to go through Jimmie Johnson, one way or the other.

Despite having a subpar season, Johnson's presence was felt throughout the playoffs, especially at Kansas where Five-Time's second win of the season placed the rest of the field on notice. We're not taking anything away from Stewart or his team but many will wonder how the 2011 season would have ended up if Johnson and Chad Knaus met their usual high standards.

4. Championship Favorites Busch, Harvick and Gordon falter

Entering the 10-race playoff as the top-seed or championship favorite just isn't as glamorous as it used to be. This year, the unenviable position went to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who entered the Chase with four wins each. Neither driver won another race for the rest of the year with Harvick not finding consistency since early June and Busch having a multitude of problems, culminating with his one-race suspicion at Texas. Earning the top seed has never appeared like more of a curse.

As for Gordon, no driver appeared to have more momentum than the driver of the Dupont Chevrolet. After wins at Phoenix, Pocono and Atlanta, Gordon looked poised to have his best Chase since the 2007 season but it wasn't meant to be. Running out of fuel at Chicagoland was just the beginning of the end for the Drive for Five and Gordon never recovered.

5. Talladega

The wild card race lived up to its billing in 2011 as Clint Bowyer snuck past Jeff Burton on the front stretch to win the Good Sam's Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. That race featured lead changes, deceptions and the Big One but the big story, in the grand scheme, occurred much deeper in the field.

Both Edwards and Stewart minimized the damage of a risky plate race finish, coming home seventh (Stewart) and 11th (Edwards) respectively. The 11th place finish cushioned an 11-point championship lead for Edwards while Smoke's seventh-place finish was the first stage of his true run to the championship.

Stewart topped himself with back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas and a third at Phoenix before closing out the championship with a victory at Homestead Miami.

That's our list and we're sticking to it. What moments do you think we missed? Tell us in our comments section!

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