Even as NASCAR's closest championship battle was drawing the headlines, other stories were playing out—here are three that will resonate beyond 2011
Over the final 10 races Kahne scored more points than any other driver not named Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards. Having failed to make the Chase—and driving for Red Bull Racing, a team that was scheduled to fold after Sunday's race—Kahne won at Phoenix on Nov. 13 and finished 14th in the final standings. In 2012 he'll move to Hendrick Motorsports to take Mark Martin's seat in the number 5 Chevy. This could be the biggest story of '12: Kahne, 31, is a championship-caliber talent with 12 career victories, and for the first time in his career he will be on a powerhouse team—one that has taken five of the last six Sprint Cup titles. What's more, Kahne's longtime crew chief, Kenny Francis, will join him at Hendrick, which means Kahne won't be slowed by the communication problems that usually doom a driver on a new team. Expect Kahne to contend for the title next fall.
For a few days in early November, Busch didn't know if he'd have a ride with Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2012 season. After he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under the caution flag in a Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 4, NASCAR suspended Busch for the Nationwide and Cup races at Texas that weekend. His primary sponsor, M&M's, also suspended its relationship with Busch—who has a long, often ugly history of committing heat-of-the-moment retaliatory acts—for the final two Cup events of 2011. Busch's team owner, Gibbs, stuck by his tempestuous driver and refused to fire him (and M&M's will return to sponsor Busch's number 18 Toyota in '12), but it's clear that Busch, who is widely considered one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR, will need to be on his best behavior. "If this doesn't teach him the ultimate lesson," said Jeff Gordon, "then nothing will."
THE EXACT MEANING OF
"HAVE AT IT"
In 2010, NASCAR issued the "Boys, have at it" edict, intending for the drivers to police themselves both on and off the track.(In the past officials were quicker to clamp down on any retaliatory action in 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. NASCAR president Mike Helton said there were limits to this—"We'll know it when we see it," Helton said several times—but it wasn't until Busch slammed Hornaday into the wall that a parameter was established for "Boys, have at it." Will NASCAR's actions against Busch produce a chilling effect on the aggressiveness of drivers next season, which in turn could foster long stretches of ho-hum, benign racing? Stay tuned.