Any modern NASCAR fan knows about the 2011 season.
After spending the entire season pretty much irrelevant, Tony Stewart took advantage of the Chase reset, put together five wins in 10 races and stole the championship from Carl Edwards, arguably the most dominant driver of 2011. Stewart won the championship on a tiebreaking win tally, the first (and only) time there has been a tie in points for champion. Since Stewart had five wins and Edwards had just one, Stewart was awarded the championship.
The championship fight is the closest in NASCAR history. Behind it is 1992, with the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway considered the greatest race in NASCAR history. Six drivers entered the finale mathematically eligible to win the championship, Richard Petty ran his last race and Jeff Gordon ran his first Winston Cup Series race. Points leader Davey Allison crashed out late, and Alan Kulwicki clinched the championship over Bill Elliott by just 10 points after leading the most laps by just one lap.
But right in between these two seasons came a season that was one of the greatest seasons of all time. One filled with first-time championship hopefuls, a rookie looking to make history, several first-time winners and upsets and, once again, Stewart finding himself in the middle of it.
The warning that 2002 was going to be a good season should have been heeded at the very first race, the Daytona 500. In a race of attrition, Sterling Marlin looked to be in the catbird’s seat to win the race. But contact with Gordon caused the latter to spin across the nose of Marlin, causing damage to Marlin’s right front fender. Under the ensuing red flag, Marlin was seen on the backstretch, jumping out of his car and looking at the damage.
Only he began to pull on the fender to clear the tire. Working on your car during a red flag is not allowed, even today. The late, great Benny Parsons knew it, and exclaimed five words that let fans know the whole race was about to change once again.
“Oh, he can’t do that!”
NASCAR then penalized Marlin, the dominant car of the day, sending him to the tail end of the longest line. That handed the lead to Ward Burton, who only had three wins at this point in his career. Burton led just five laps but hung on to take a stunning Daytona 500 victory, not just for himself, but for his team, Bill Davis Racing.
Marlin still finished eighth, and that set the tone for the first half of his 2002 season, as he took the points lead the next week and held onto it for the next 20+ races. But by the time the final 10 races had come around, Marlin was on the verge of a late-season collapse, despite having two wins on the season.
Chasing him was Mark Martin, a three-time bridesmaid for the Winston Cup, still looking for his first. He had just one win but had a much better consistency rate than Marlin. Martin also had an extra chip on his shoulder, as he wanted to win for team owner Jack Roush, who had nearly been killed in an aircraft accident that season.
Behind Martin was a young rookie looking to make history. Jimmie Johnson took the NASCAR world by storm even before winning five championships in a row. His rookie season saw him win three races, and he found himself in the midst of the championship battle with a few races to go.
At this point, Stewart was nowhere to be found. He got behind from the start after finishing dead last in the Daytona 500 and spent a good portion of the season trying to catch up. Winning three races helped him though, but he was still not really a serious championship contender. After the 21st race of the season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was only seventh in points.
Not to mention, Stewart had a litany of issues off the racetrack. He was fined $10,000 by NASCAR (and $50,000 by his sponsor Home Depot) for punching a photographer after that race at Indianapolis. He was then accused of shoving a female fan after the race at Bristol Motor Speedway and shoving another photographer at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Safe to say, he was not the media’s best friend that season.
Nevertheless, a championship seemed unlikely for Stewart. It seemed like it would come down to Marlin, Martin and perhaps Johnson, who was looking to become the first rookie to win the championship.
Then the fall race at Kansas Speedway changed everything.
Entering Kansas, Martin was the point leader. Johnson, Stewart and Marlin were all within 81 points of the lead. Gordon, running fifth, was more than a race out and was likely all but out of the championship fight.
But then, two of the four contenders found serious trouble.
Marlin lost control of his No. 40 on lap 147 and slammed the wall hard. He was able to walk away and was checked and released from the infield care center. However, it was later found that he had a cracked vertebra in his neck, and that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The championship favorite up until just a few races prior would not be able to try to rally for his first championship. His replacement was Jamie McMurray, who would go on to take his first career win in just his second career start at Charlotte Motor Speedway. If that was Marlin behind the wheel, maybe that begins the rally he needed to win the championship.
But we’ll just never know.
Nevertheless, Marlin’s crash opened the door wide open for Martin to pull away with it. However, engine issues sent Martin to the garage and ended his day.
New championship leader: Rookie Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson became the first rookie to lead the point standings. But the next race at Talladega Superspeedway is where it all came apart for Johnson and put Martin out of the championship hunt for good.
On the pace laps, Martin, who started on the outside pole next to Johnson, had a steering column failure. The wheel locked to the left, shooting Martin down the racetrack in the trioval and into Johnson, damaging both cars.
To the ire of Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, NASCAR didn’t hold the green for the two drivers to try to repair the damage. Instead, the second row consisting of Stewart and Gordon took the green as the front row.
The race went caution-free — the last time a NASCAR race has done so to date — and Stewart finished second. Johnson (and every other Hendrick Motorsports-affiliated driver for that matter) had engine issues and finished 42nd, while Martin finished 30th.
That was all Stewart needed.
From last to first, Stewart clinched his first of three crowns. The open-wheel defect opened up the flood gates for open-wheel drivers to get the idea that they could be as successful at Stewart.
Stewart beat Martin by 38 points in a tight points battle. Stewart clinched with an 18th at Homestead that was good enough for a title despite Martin finishing in fourth.
For Stewart, as mentioned, it was the first title of three that he would get, winning in 2005 and, of course, 2011. And much like 2011, Stewart won the championship after spending most of the season irrelevant for the title.
Johnson would have to wait until 2006 to get his first championship — but then he just didn’t stop winning them. He won five in a row and seven total, tying the greats Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.
Martin and Marlin never won a championship. For Marlin, he would not win another race past 2002 and only mustered four top fives prior to retiring following the 2009 season. That same year, Martin came close, winning five races for Hendrick, but came up a bridesmaid once again, this time to his teammate Johnson.
2002 is one of the greatest points battles of all-time. It should be talked about along with 1992 and 2011 as the best battles in NASCAR history, but it doesn’t seem to be.
About the author
Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. He is an editor and co-authors Only Yesterday (Wednesdays) and Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer and dabbles in SRX coverage too. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is currently pursuing a master's degree. He is a theatre actor and fight choreographer-in-training in his free time. He's a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.
You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.