If the extraordinary 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup should be remembered for anything, it should be Brad Keselowski’s breakthrough into the big league, from young pretender to a legitimate champion in his own right and delivering Roger Penske his first NASCAR title in the process. Keselowski has never lacked the confidence to fight his corner – his first win in Cup, achieved by spinning Carl Edwards into the catch-fencing on the run to the flag at Talladega back in 2009 was testament to that fact – while his in-car tweet during ‘jet-dryer-gate’ exemplifies his renegade status, which has made him a hit among the blue-collar fans. His development from an incident-filled first full season in 2010 has been marked; he made the Chase for the first time last year, silencing his chief doubters with wins at Kansas, Pocono and Bristol, but it was the chance to contend for a championship and lead the team which proved the making of the 28-year-old Michigan native.
Clearly not affected by being the only full-time outfit to run with Dodge (in the marque’s final year in NASCAR) and despite team-mate A.J. Allmendinger contributing little to the setup, Keselowski was consistently in the hunt all year and as early-season contenders Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell by the wayside in the Chase, it was the ‘Blue Deuce’ team that took up the mantle. From stamping his authority on the series with a brilliant win in the Chase-opener at Chicago, Keselowski faced challenges from five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, surprise package Clint Bowyer and a resurgent Denny Hamlin, but with crew chief Paul Wolfe alongside, ‘Special K’ always appeared to have the edge. Indeed, his five wins came at all different kinds of circuit – the Bristol and Dover short-tracks, the Talladega Super Speedway and 1.5 milers Chicago and Kentucky – and don’t forget that Keselowski only narrowly missed out on adding a road-course win to his repertoire after an incredible duel with Marcos Ambrose – an accomplished road-course racer with a V8 Supercars title to his name – in slick conditions at Watkins Glen, arguably the best race of the season. That’s not to say that Keselowski didn’t benefit from the odd slice of luck; how he managed to avoid the Ryan Newman-Kyle Busch wreck at Kansas, and then the Jeff Gordon-induced melee at Phoenix is a question he himself doesn’t know the answer to, but Keselowski is without doubt a deserving champion at this level, showing a level-headedness in the showdown with Jimmie Johnson distinctly lacking in many of his competitors this year…
Aside from Keselowski, the year had several notable storylines. After the epic title showdown between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in 2011, it was expected that the two would carry on from where they left off when the series reconvened in Florida. And while Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 and Greg Biffle led the championship, their Roush-Fenway Racing team-mate struggled badly with only 3 top-5 finishes to speak of all season. While Edwards never looked like making the Chase, Stewart at least did sneak in by virtue of three wins at Las Vegas, Fontana and Daytona, the latter one of the drives of the year, coming from 42nd on the grid. As high as his peaks were, Stewart’s troughs were even lower and, it was his ‘helmet toss’ after a racing incident with Matt Kenseth at Bristol which earned ‘Smoke’ most attention in a highly disappointing Chase.
Another who spectacularly failed to live up to expectations was Kyle Busch. Banned last year after intentionally wrecking championship contender Ron Hornaday in the Truck Series, Busch had appeared to be back at his exuberant best with a spectacular Bud Shootout win. ‘Rowdy’ could not build on this promising start however, winning only once more at Richmond, while also enduring a frustrating winless season in both the Nationwide and Truck Series. Busch was in danger of not making the Chase when the circus returned to the Virginia short track for the final race of the regular season and needed to beat Jeff Gordon – who had won at a rain-shortened Pocono – to seal that all important final wildcard. It all started so well – when rain hit, Busch was comfortably in with Gordon a lap down – but the roles reversed at the restart, with Gordon charging back into contention while Busch dropped like a stone and missed the cut, left to rue what might have been. Even though he was often used as a pawn to help JGR team-mate Hamlin, he was still able to rack up an impressive series of 7 top-5 finishes during the Chase, while Gordon’s retro moustache failed to spur him on to a fifth title, a brake-failure induced accident at Chicago leaving him with an insurmountable mountain to climb. He didn’t do himself any favours either at Phoenix…
Having spent his whole career with Richard Childress Racing, Clint Bowyer’s off-season switch to Michael Waltrip Racing came as something of a surprise. This was especially so when considering MWR’s uninspiring pedigree, with only two wins to its name (each scored by David Reutimann) and having never once made the chase. Despite being written off by many before the season had even started, Bowyer and crew-chief Brian Pattie would prove to be one of the year’s strongest packages, with three wins at Sonoma, Richmond and Charlotte – each on fuel mileage- and second in the Chase standings. And as if that wasn’t good enough, MWR also got Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase and won 4 pole positions with part-time entrant Mark Martin. 2012 marked MWR’s ascendance into the NASCAR big league and even greater things are planned for 2013.
2012 was a breakthrough year of sorts too for Dale Earnhardt Jr. A more competitive force than he had been for years, the series’ most popular driver ended a wait of four years and 143 races when he returned to Victory Lane at Michigan, led the standings for first time since 2004 and would finish the regular season in third place, having completed every lap until transmission failure struck at Pocono in August. However, Earnhardt could not translate his early-season form to the Chase, and picked up a concussion in the Talladega ‘Big One’ which kept him out for two races, ending his slim title chances. We were thus presented with the unfamiliar sight of Regan Smith in the Hendrick #88, the 29-year old performing admirably in difficult circumstances. After all, filling in for Earnhardt is no light task.
A.J. Allmendinger’s failed drugs test after the Kentucky race in July was another of the year’s biggest storylines. The Californian had won the Daytona 24-hour sportscar race in January and put the seal on a dream move from Richard Petty Motorsports to Penske, but mysteriously struggled – pole at Kansas and second place at Martinsville were the only high-points of a miserable half season, compounded when, just hours before the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona was due to start, it was announced that Allmendinger had been banned from NASCAR competition for testing positive for a banned substance, and was subsequently fired. Vowing to clear his name, Allmendinger completed NASCAR’s Race to Recovery programme which enabled him to close the year with Phoenix Racing, but it remains to be seen whether the damage done to his image and career can be recovered.
As usual, Kyle’s elder brother Kurt Busch provided great entertainment value. From threatening a reporter while still on probation at Dover, to his Talladega Nights-inspired ‘ME’ livery at Talladega and getting disqualified from his final race for Phoenix Racing on his return to Talladega – this time for driving away from the scene of an accident without his helmet on – wherever the 2004 champion was, there was sure to be a story. Although things didn’t work out with James Finch’s organization, Busch’s undoubted talent was confirmed by a late-season switch to Furniture Row Racing, which yielded a promising trio of top 10s.
Media darling Danica Patrick made her long-awaited debut in the Sprint Cup in a third Stewart-Haas Chevrolet and understandably found the going tough. Big crashes in the Gatorade Duels and the Daytona 500 hardly helped her confidence, but Patrick was able to survive Darlington and Charlotte relatively unscathed and showed a steady improvement, scoring her first top-20 at the Phoenix demolition derby. However, the defining memory of Patrick’s first year in Cup will be her comedic attempt to exact retribution on Landon Cassill at Kansas, which backfired spectacularly when she only succeeded in firing herself into the wall…
No review of the 2012 season would be complete without casting an eye back to the events of the Daytona 500; who can forget witnessing the hapless Juan Pablo Montoya colliding with a jet-dryer carrying 200 gallons of kerosene, which instantly ignited, melting parts of the track surface and curtailing the action for over two hours? Has there ever been anything like it in sports? The drama of the moment just about summed up the 2012 season – it was an absolute thriller.