By Jerry Bonkowski For TheRacingGuy.com –
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.