Archive for Racing Guy Features

10 of the biggest highlights of 2012

By Jerry Bonkowski For –

As NASCAR prepares to celebrate Brad Keselowski’s Sprint Cup championship in Las Vegas on Friday, it’s time to reflect upon some of the season’s biggest highlights as we prepare to close the final page on the 2012 campaign.

Keselowski’s first title as a championship driver – and Roger Penske’s first as a Sprint Cup team owner – put a bow on what unquestionably was a rather eventful season.

And to think, the start of the 2013 season is now less than three months away.

Here’s our list of 10 of the biggest highlights of 2012, in no particular order:

1. Keselowski’s run through the Chase and ultimately winning the Cup championship. In just his third full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Keselowski boldly said prior to the Chase that “why can’t I win the championship?” – and then proceeded to back up his boast. He became a much-needed breath of fresh air in the sport and at 28 years old, holds the promise of more championships to come.

2. Rick Hendrick’s 200th win as a team owner at Darlington. Hendrick has built one of the most successful organizations in NASCAR history, including five-time champ Jimmie Johnson and four-time champ Jeff Gordon. Hendrick Motorsports placed all four of its drivers in the Chase this season, although they unfortunately came up short of the championship. Still, it was a memorable and inspirational campaign that will only serve as a platform for one of the most tenacious and competitive organizations in the sport to build upon for 2013.

3. The failure of several name drivers to make the Chase, including Carl Edwards, who lost the 2011 Sprint Cup championship by one single point, and Kyle Busch. Of particular note with those two, Edwards failed to win a race in 2012, meaning he’s gone 69 races now (dating back to Las Vegas in 2011) since reaching victory lane in a Sprint Cup race. And Busch certainly had an uncharacteristic season by his own standards, earning just one win on the Sprint Cup side in 2012. What’s more, Busch dramatically scaled back his participation in both the Nationwide and Camping World Trucks Series circuits, leaving some to wonder if his lack of success on the Sprint Cup side may have been partly tied to his lack of extracurricular racing.

4. The crazy crash and resulting inferno that occurred in the rain-delayed Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya lost control of his race car and piled into a truck that was trying to dry the track. Not only was the resulting flash fire that occurred spectacular (fortunately, no one was injured), but Brad Keselowski chose to use Twitter during the resulting red flag race stoppage to send messages and even photos of the fire, leading to his gaining over 100,000 new followers in little over an hour. It was a key element in NASCAR’s overall social media emphasis in 2012 to attract new fans and re-attract former fans back to the sport.

5. Danica Patrick’s first foray into Sprint Cup racing. While she only competed in 10 races as a prelude to a full-time campaign in 2013, Patrick struggled at times. Yet, she was on track for a potential top-15 finish in the fall race at Phoenix until she was wrecked. On the Nationwide Series side, after two part-time slates in 2010 and 2011, Patrick ran the entire 33-race Nationwide schedule in 2012, earning a respectable 10th-place finish in the season standings. While she likely will struggle at times when she moves to Sprint Cup full-time in 2013, Patrick has shown progress behind the wheel and, if things go optimally for her, could potentially wind up with a top-20 season finish when all is said and done.

6. Keselowski getting into Jimmie Johnson’s head in several races during the Chase, leading to costly mistakes for the five-time champ. There was Chicago, where Keselowski rattled Johnson by abruptly puling in front of him after exiting pit road. There was Johnson wrecking at Phoenix after a tire blew out, partly because Johnson was pushing hard not to fall further behind Keselowski at that point in the race (he was already down close to 10 places at the time of the wreck). And then there was the dropped lug nut at Homestead that not only drew a penalty, it preceded what would bring an early end to Johnson’s season when the drivetrain in his car failed, thus clinching the championship for Keselowski. No other driver has been able to put pressure on Johnson like Keselowski did in 2012. Normally, it’s Johnson who applies the pressure, not the one who feels it, but such was the case this past season. It should be interesting to watch how Johnson, one of the sport’s most tenacious competitors, bounces back in 2013 (he finished third behind Keselowski and Clint Bowyer in 2012), and whether he comes up with a way to deal with Keselowski, particularly if they’re involved in another championship battle.

7. Junior wins! Junior wins! Yes, after 143 starts without a victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally broke the longest winless streak of his career at the same place where he broke his previous longest winless streak (76 races), at Michigan International Speedway in June. While Earnhardt predicted he would win again in 2012 after his Michigan triumph, unfortunately for him and his legion of fans, such was not to happen. But on the flip side, Earnhardt had one of his better seasons in a long time performance-wise – that is, until he reached the Chase. His performance took a noticeable tailspin once the Chase began, compounded by a wreck at Talladega that resulted in a second concussion in less than two months, causing him to miss two of the Chase races and ultimately finish last (12th) in NASCAR’s playoffs.

8. Jeff Gordon showed in the season-ending finale at Homestead that he still has it, winning the 87th Sprint Cup race of his career. In an ironic twist, he defeated runnerup Clint Bowyer, with whom Gordon tangled the week before at Phoenix, intentionally wrecking Bowyer for a season-long feud, leading to an outright brawl between Gordon’s and Bowyer’s teams on pit road.

9. Lost amidst so many other storylines was the performance of Kasey Kahne, who finished a career-best fourth in 2012. Not only was it Kahne’s first Chase since 2009, he had one of his best statistical seasons as well, with two wins, 12 top fives, 19 top 10s and four poles. If his first season with Hendrick Motorsports was any indication of what’s to come from Kahne and the No. 5 team, 2013 will be a year to watch the Washington state native much more closely. Given his finish in the final standings, Kahne established himself as a legitimate contender for the Sprint Cup championship in 2013.

10. While he tied Keselowski and Johnson for most wins in 2012 with five apiece, Denny Hamlin struggled in the Chase, ultimately finishing sixth. But there is a sense of irony in Hamlin’s performance somewhat, as new crew chief Darian Grubb led his driver to a better season finish than 2011 champ Tony Stewart ultimately wound up with (ninth place, three wins). In one of the strangest finishes to a season ever in NASCAR history, Grubb led Stewart to five wins in the 2011 Chase, and ultimately the championship, only to be fired. We may never know the whole story why, but somewhere, Grubb must have gotten some consolation for how his new driver did in 2012, compared with where his old driver wound up.

Well, that’s 10 of the biggest highlights of 2012. It was a great season, one that was capped off by an unpredictable finish by an unexpected champion.

If 2012 is any indication of the excitement and suspense we’ll see in 2013, all we can say is the season opener in Daytona can’t come fast enough.

Can he do it again next year?

By Jerry Bonkowski For –

It happened within minutes of Jimmie Johnson’s first Sprint Cup championship in 2006 – and continued after each successive championship through 2010.

It happened within minutes of Tony Stewart earning his third Sprint Cup championship in 2011.

And it’s happened countless times already since Brad Keselowski won his first Sprint Cup championship this past Sunday at Homestead.

For each of the last three Cup champs – and, for the most part, all drivers who have ever won a NASCAR title – the question invariably pops almost immediately after they hold the championship trophy in their hands:

Can he do it again next year?

With Johnson, the question was simpler to answer in most cases because, for the most part, he kept his entire crew intact throughout his five-year championship run. Continuity and familiarity breed titles.

Stewart, on the other hand, incredulously parted ways with crew chief Darian Grubb after winning the championship last season. And to some degree, when Grubb left, so did Stewart’s chances of repeating as champ this season.

That’s not a knock against Grubb’s replacement, Steve Addington. But from a distance, Stewart’s team just didn’t seem to have the same kind of chemistry in 2012 that it did in 2011, particularly during the Chase when the entire crew came together to lead Stewart to five wins in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – and ultimately the championship.

As for Keselowski, some comparisons can be drawn between his and Johnson’s respective first championships.

* They both had great talent, but much of the credit for their championships went to their respective crew chiefs, Paul Wolfe (Keselowski) and Chad Knaus (Johnson). Likewise, they also have pit crews that are among the very best in the business.

* Instead of driving by the seat of their pants, both Keselowski and Johnson are very cerebral drivers. Like chess masters, they always seem to be thinking several moves – or in racing parlance, several laps – ahead of most of their opponents.

* They also know how to get into their opponents’ heads and, much like the late Dale Earnhardt did, have become an intimidating force without having to really imitate Earnhardt’s near-trademark use of the so-called chrome horn to move other drivers out of their way.

If there’s one way that Keselowski won this year’s championship, it’s how he put Johnson uncharacteristically on the defensive more often than not, taking away his offensive advantage.

Keselowski found a way to get inside Johnson’s head, to intimidate him at times without even trying (like at Chicago), and to force him to push at times, leading to mistakes (the crash at Phoenix is a good example, when Johnson pushed too hard and wrecked because he didn’t want to fall further behind Keselowski at that point in the race).

The pressure from the Keselowski onslaught even seemed to have gotten into the heads of Johnson’s pit crew, which made several uncharacteristic mistakes during the course of the Chase, particularly in the closing races (like the dropped lug nut at Homestead).

Of course, Keselowski’s championship was sealed by a mechanical failure of Johnson’s car.

One significant difference between the two, however, is that Johnson somewhat built up to his five-championship run, finishing second in 2003 and 2004, and fifth in 2002 and 2005. Keselowski, meanwhile, was only in his third full Sprint Cup season in 2012 and had only been in the Chase once before, finishing fifth in 2011.

Speaking of which, there’s a certain irony that many casual NASCAR fans have asked things like “Who is this Keselowski kid and where did he come from?” – not remembering his fifth-place finish last season.

Even then, you could see the makings of an eventual champion.

Pushing the clock ahead and getting back to our original question, can Keselowski win it all again in 2013? If he follows the path that Johnson carved out after his first championship, there’s no reason to think the new champ can’t make it two in a row next season.

He’ll have Wolfe back as his crew chief, should have his entire pit crew back intact, will have more power and factory support with the switch to Ford cars and motors, and with the considerable resources of Penske Racing behind him, Keselowski may not necessarily be a shoe-in, but he’s certainly primed to kick off his championship defense on the right foot.

What’s more, don’t forget who’s at the top of Penske Racing: Roger Penske, himself. From the first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1972 (Mark Donohue), Penske and his organization have spawned 14 more.

And from its first-ever championship over four decades ago (road racing in 1967), Penske Racing spawned 22 more championships across different motorsports platforms.

Now that the man they call “RP” and “The Captain” has finally tasted a Cup championship after more than 30 years of trying, you can bet your last dollar that he’ll throw everything – including the kitchen sink – at trying to win a second Cup title with Keselowski and Wolfe next season.

Yes, Keselowski can win it all again in 2013, especially if he follows the same playbook as Johnson did en route to his five straight titles. Do you remember how many times Johnson and Knaus talked about constantly referring back to their previous race and season notes during their five-year run?

That’s the same thing Keselowski and Wolfe will have to do. As the old saying goes, the first championship is always the hardest.

But as Johnson and Knaus proved quite prophetically – and Keselowski and Wolfe hope to emulate – if you can do it once, you can do it again – and in some cases, again and again and again.

Keselowski vs. Johnson will be classic David vs. Goliath battle at Homestead

By Jerry Bonkowski For –

Americans love inspirational stories, and come this Sunday, we may have one of the most inspiring stories seen in NASCAR in many years in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway.

In a virtual NASCAR version of David vs. Goliath, Brad Keselowski, who is completing just his third full season in Sprint Cup competition, is seeking his first Cup championship, doing battle with five-time champ Jimmie Johnson.

Think about it, Keselowski is on the verge of winning a championship before so many other drivers who have been around the Sprint Cup Series far longer than the Polish Rocket, guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards (although he came so close last year), Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and so many others.

This matchup has the word “classic” written all over it. There’s the blue collar, Michigan-raised and up and coming youngster, who cut his teeth in short track racing around the Midwest, against the former motorcycle racer turned one of NASCAR’s most prolific champions from just outside San Diego.

In all five of his previous championships, Johnson has never really had the kind of competitor that he faces in Keselowski. Somehow, Keselowski has found a way to literally get inside Johnson’s head and forced him to make some costly mistakes during this year’s Chase.

There was the opening race at Chicago, where Keselowski came off the access road after a pit stop earlier than usual, causing Johnson to slam on his brakes to avoid a crash. That banzai move so unnerved Johnson that he all but let Keselowski pull away to the eventual win.

And then there was this past Sunday at Phoenix. Johnson came into the race with a seven-point lead over Keselowski in the standings.

Once again, Keselowski found his way into Johnson’s brain, with the end result being a costly crash that saw Keselowski leave Phoenix with a 20-point lead over Johnson heading into this Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson was trailing Keselowski at the time of the wreck in Phoenix, falling behind by nearly a dozen spots. Johnson admitted after the race that he was pressing at the time of the wreck, not wanting to lose any more ground than he already had.

Unfortunately for fans of the No. 48, Johnson pushed so hard that a right side tire blew out, sending him slamming into the wall and ultimately turning the points lead back to Keselowski.

As if to top things all off, there was the sidelight wreck and resulting pit road melee between Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and crew member of each driver’s respective teams.

Even though Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and Bowyer’s crew chief, Brian Pattie, were all fined for the ruckus, they’ll all be in attendance and participating at Homestead.

And that’s where the David vs. Goliath story has the potential to take an unexpected turn. Because NASCAR did not park Gordon or Bowyer for Sunday’s race – although I’m sure both drivers have had a long talking to by NASCAR officials, and likely will be “reminded” again before the green flag drops (and in-race, if necessary) – there’s the potential that the season-long feud they’ve had may spill over into the end-game race. If that happens, it runs the risk of taking away some of the excitement and detracting from what most people will either turn out in-person for or tune in on TV, to watch the championship match between Keselowski and Johnson ultimately play out.

There’s no question that the most pressure is on Johnson. He has to finish at least 15 places in front of Keselowski, to even have a chance at forcing what we saw at the end of last year’s race at Homestead, namely, a tie between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.

But if Johnson wins and Keselowski finishes, say, 10th, it will still be the man nicknamed “Bad Brad” who will be hoisting the Sprint Cup high after the race in celebration of the championship after the race.

Johnson has made it very clear, though, that he won’t settle for anything less than the championship. He intends on going out and winning Sunday’s race, first and foremost, and let everything else take care of itself.

To his credit, however, Keselowski has stayed close to Johnson in virtually every Chase race, either in front or close behind. Don’t expect Sunday’s race to be any different.

As the saying goes, the best offense is a strong defense. Keselowski needs to drive a smart, solid race. In other words, he needs to do the same thing he’s done throughout the Chase. Even better, Keselowski has to do exactly what Johnson did in virtually all five of his consecutive championships: stick around the top 15 and let the race play out or come to him.

Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe have arguably become one of the biggest surprise and most effective pairings in NASCAR, and now they are on the verge of becoming NASCAR’s next successor to Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

So far, no one has been able to conquer the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut – last season’s championship battle between Stewart and Johnson notwithstanding.

And while there’s no question that Johnson and Knaus are not going to let one last chance at the championship try to slip through their fingers, if they are to lose, there will be very little disgrace at losing to Keselowski and Wolfe.

Sure, there’ll be disappointment in the No. 48 team if that happens, but if NASCAR’s Goliath is to lose to anyone, it’s best to lose to the new young David on the block, namely Bradley Aaron Keselowski.