- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - NASCAR opened its season with a fresh-faced Daytona 500 winner and ended it with one of the most thrilling championship races in series history.

In between, there was conflict, controversy and, most important, compelling competition _ none more so than Sunday’s season finale. Tony Stewart grabbed his third NASCAR championship with a determined drive at Homestead, where he passed an unbelievable 118 cars to win for the fifth time in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

The victory left him tied with Carl Edwards in the final points standings _ a NASCAR first _ and Stewart got the title on the tie-breaker of season wins.

“If you didn’t think this was one of the most exciting Chases to watch from a fan standpoint, you’ve got to go to a doctor immediately and get checked out,” Stewart said.

The television ratings backed it up, as NASCAR saw an upswing for the first time in years. ESPN had its largest audience ever for a NASCAR race, as the 4.0 rating was up 18 percent from last year’s finale.

More important, ratings for the entire Chase were up 14.8 percent from last year.

“Obviously, we think the season has gone very well,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said two days before the race.

It was a good season, beginning with Trevor Bayne’s improbable Daytona 500 victory. Nobody gave the 20-year-old a chance in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, not in his first Daytona 500 start and driving for a team that hadn’t been to Victory Lane in a decade.

But with a slew of veterans lined up behind him on the final restart _ Stewart included _ Bayne kept his foot on the gas and drove the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to a stunning upset. It was a tremendous kickoff to the season and made many people forget about the two-car tandem racing style that had taken over at Daytona.

As the months wore on, 18 different drivers won Sprint Cup races, including six first-time winners. Among them was Regan Smith, driving for underfunded, single-car team Furniture Row Racing, and Marcos Ambrose, who proved Richard Petty Motorsports could still compete after staving off a 2010 collapse.

And then there was Brad Keselowski, a brash and outspoken driver who just two years ago was a thorn in most everyone’s side. That seems so long ago now. Keselowski has grown into a media darling and backed it up with a sensational summer run _ while driving with a broken ankle _ that got him into his first Chase and earned him a surprising fifth place in the final points standings.

His emergence helped soften things at Penske Racing, which all year was forced to clean up behind driver Kurt Busch.

Busch sparred with his team, the media, and his meltdowns on his in-car radio became legendary. Just this week, Busch’s crew chief formally quit the team and Penske officials took the unusual step of issuing a public apology when a fan posted video to YouTube of Busch being verbally abusive Sunday to an ESPN reporter.

Then there’s Busch’s little brother.

The last month of the season was rough for Kyle Busch, the top seed at the start of the Chase who ended the year ranked last in the 12-driver standings. He was suspended by NASCAR three weeks ago at Texas for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in a Truck Series race, and Kyle Busch had to fight hard to keep primary sponsor M&M’s from firing him.

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