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The Inside Line: Looking back at the 2012 Sprint Cup season

6:30 PM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
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Las Vegas, NV (Sports Network) - From Juan Pablo Montoya's freak accident in the Daytona 500 to Brad Keselowski winning his first Sprint Cup championship, this season in NASCAR's premier series was an eventful one to say the least.

NASCAR is in Las Vegas for its "Championship Week" celebration, with Keselowski being honored as the new Sprint Cup titleholder. What a year it's been for the 28-year-old Twitter-crazed driver who hails from just outside of Detroit.

Keselowski became a social media sensation when he tweeted photos and commentary of Montoya's crash that occurred during a caution in the Daytona 500 -- delayed one day for the first time in its history due to rain. After getting up to speed following his pit stop, Montoya lost control of his car and slammed into the back of a track-drying vehicle, which burst into flames and then created a fire in the turn three area where approximately 200 gallons of jet kerosene spilled onto the track surface. During a two-hour stoppage of the race for track repairs, Keselowski pulled his phone out of his driver-suit pocket and posted tweets of the incident. Within hours, he generated more than 100,000 new followers on Twitter. NASCAR would later ban drivers from using electronic devices while in their cars during competition.

Nine months after the Daytona 500, Keselowski went on capture the championship after an intense battle with Jimmie Johnson during the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

There was a lot of drama both on and off the track from the Daytona 500 to the season-finale in Homestead (Fla.). A.J. Allmendinger was suspended for failing his drug test. Kurt Busch got into trouble with NASCAR again. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon's teams had at it in Phoenix, and Dodge bid farewell to the sport at season's end.

All in all, stock car racing's biggest circuit had another entertaining year.

NEW CHAMP

Either Johnson or Tony Stewart had won the championship each year from 2005-11, but Keselowski is now on top of the Sprint Cup world.

In his third full-season of Cup competition and with Penske Racing, Keselowski notched five wins and 23 top-10 finishes in 36 races. He clinched the series title by 39 points over Clint Bowyer and 40 ahead of Johnson, who faltered in the last two Chase races.

Keselowski began the season with a 32nd-place finish in the Feb. 27 Daytona 500 and did not crack the top-10 in points until the June 10 race at Pocono. He won the June 30 event at Kentucky and remained hot from there, finishing outside the top-10 just three times during the remainder of the season.

"We didn't start at Daytona the way we wanted, got caught up in a wreck, but we knew we had some speed in our cars," Keselowski said. "As the middle of the season and the spring came through, we had those fuel issues, but we rallied deep, found a way through them, and when the summer stretch came, we didn't have the speed we wanted through the summer. What we did have was execution that was incredible, and I knew it right away.

"I remember some of those races, the spring Pocono race, where we had troubles with some part on the car and we fixed it and came back from what should have been a 30-something place day and finished (18th), and I knew right then, those days right there, I knew if we could do that in the Chase with speed then we could win it."

Keselowski won two of the first three Chase races -- Chicagoland (Sept. 16) and Dover (Sept. 30). His worst finish in the postseason came in the Nov. 18 finale at Homestead, where he placed 15th.

Keselowski and Johnson were the only ones who led in the point standings during the 10-race Chase. Johnson took over the top spot after winning on Nov. 4 at Texas, but his quest to win a sixth Sprint Cup championship took a big hit one week later at Phoenix, where he finished 32nd after making contact with the wall and fell 20 points behind Keselowski.

Johnson ended his season third in the rankings following his 36th-place finish at Homestead.

"Sure, I feel disappointed that we didn't get the championship, but a large part of my feeling is satisfied, and I feel good about the year," Johnson said.

After a rough rookie season in Cup two years ago, Keselowski was reunited with crew chief Paul Wolfe for 2011. Wolfe guided him to the 2010 Nationwide Series championship. The two made incredible headway during the second half of the '11 season. They earned a wild card spot in the Chase and went on to finish the year fifth in points.

"I had a pretty good idea what we needed to do to win the championship at the end of last year to be quite honest," Keselowski said. "We didn't quite execute as strongly as we needed to. We finished strong and finished fifth in the points, but that process was certainly a learning process. I think we applied some of those lessons to 2012."

Keselowski gave Roger Penske his first championship in NASCAR's top division. Penske, who has 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner in the IndyCar Series, has been fielding cars in the Cup Series since 1972. It ended the longest non-championship streak among current ownership. His previous best points finish was second with Rusty Wallace in 1993.

"It's a goal that I wanted to achieve, and I tried hard," Penske said. "We were close in 1993 with Rusty finishing second and then third in 1994. That's a long time ago.

"The competition has gotten tougher, and I think that any one weekend there's 10 or 15 cars that can win, and I think for us to be able to have the continuity, and it's a team, we've built a special team here, and I'm proud to be the leader."

Keselowski also became the first Dodge driver to win a championship since Richard Petty last did it in 1975.

When Penske announced earlier this year its switch from Dodge to Ford in both Sprint Cup and Nationwide next season, it ultimately led to Dodge's decision to exit the sport.

THE RESURGENCE OF MWR

For the first time in its history, Michael Waltrip Racing was represented in the Chase, not just one team but two. Martin Truex Jr. and Bowyer qualified for the playoffs this year.

Bowyer had a superb season in his first year with MWR, as he recorded a career-best three wins, including one in the Oct. 13 Chase race at Charlotte.

"It's huge to end up second in points and beat guys like Jimmie Johnson to do it," Bowyer said. "There's several races - had I had to do over again - I wish they would've been different. Talladega was the biggest one. We just got behind at Talladega and never could really bounce back. I'm proud of everybody, because we were there all season long."

Truex has not won a Sprint Cup race since June 2007 at Dover but came close in both events at Kansas this year. He ended the season 11th in points.

THE BRAWL AT PHOENIX

One of the most memorable fights in NASCAR took place in the Nov. 11 race at Phoenix. Mayhem broke out in the garage area where crew members from Bowyer and Gordon's teams really had at it after Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer in the closing laps of the race.

Bowyer and Gordon's feud had been escalating throughout the season, and it reached the boiling point at Phoenix. With the season now over, there's still some tension between the two.

"It's been pretty awkward," Gordon said on Thursday in Las Vegas. "I thought he might have been over it at least enough to look at me, but he won't even look at me. It's so unlikely. Clint gets along with everybody, and I got along with him very well up until this point. It's not what I was expecting, but it happened."

Gordon avoided being suspended for Homestead, but NASCAR did penalize the four-time series champion with a fine of $100,000 and a loss of 25 points as well as probation for the remainder of the year. He won a Cup race at Homestead for the first time in his career, while Bowyer finished right behind him in second.

ALLMENDINGER'S SUSPENSION

Allmendinger became the second Sprint Cup driver to be suspended for failing a drug test since NASCAR revised its substance abuse policy prior to the start of the 2009 season. Allmendinger was placed on suspension, starting with the July race at Daytona, after he failed his initial test at Kentucky. When his "B" sample tested positive several weeks later, he immediately participated in the sanctioning body's "Road to Recovery Program."

Following his suspension, Allmendinger was released from Penske Racing. He had replaced Kurt Busch in Penske's No. 22 car for this season.

Allmendinger said he tested positive for Adderall, a drug typically prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He had also noted that he used the amphetamine only one time.

After successfully completing the recovery program, NASCAR reinstated Allmendinger. Later in the season, he drove the No. 51 car for Phoenix Racing at Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville and Texas.

Jeremy Mayfield failed a drug test in May '09 and has not competed in a NASCAR race since then.

ONE-RACE BAN FOR KURT BUSCH

It would be an unusual year in NASCAR if one or both Busch brothers didn't get into trouble. While Kyle did not make a lot of fuss this season, his elder brother, Kurt, did.

NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch for the June race at Pocono after officials determined he violated his probation when he verbally abused a reporter from The Sporting News following the completion of the June 2 Nationwide race at Dover. Busch had been on probation for an altercation he had with Ryan Newman's team in the May 12 Sprint Cup event at Darlington.

After losing his job with Penske for his outburst in last year's season-finale at Homestead, Busch landed a ride with Phoenix Racing. Busch had a one-year verbal agreement with team owner James Finch to drive the No. 51, but he departed the team in October and joined Furniture Row Racing to replace Regan Smith in the No. 78 for the final six races.

"Finishing the season with three straight top-10s and four straight top-15s, you just can't ask for much more in a short period of time together," Busch said in regards to his six races with Furniture Row, in preparation for the upcoming season. "We've made a tremendous amount of progress in the last six weeks, and that gives all of us plenty of confidence heading into the off-season."

EARNHARDT JR's UP AND DOWN YEAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was voted as NASCAR's most popular driver for the 10th consecutive time, had quite a season.

Earnhardt Jr. ended his four-year winless streak in June at Michigan. He sat no lower than sixth in points during the regular season, making the Chase for the second straight year. But Earnhardt Jr. was forced to sit out Charlotte and Kansas after being diagnosed with a concussion that he suffered during a multi-car wreck on the final lap of the Oct. 7 race at Talladega. He also sustained a concussion during a crash while participating in the Aug. 29 Goodyear tire test at Kansas. The Hendrick Motorsports driver ended the season 12th in points.

"I've learned a ton about what I went through," Earnhardt Jr. said when he returned to competition the last weekend in October at Martinsville. "I feel like I'm a lot smarter and a lot more prepared and understand the situation a lot better now than beforehand."

After being relieved of his driving duties at Furniture Row, Smith substituted for Earnhardt Jr. during his two-race absence. He finished 38th at Charlotte due to engine failure and then seventh at Kansas.

Smith will drive the No. 5 car for Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports, next year. He won the Nationwide season-ending race at Homestead in his debut with the team.

DANICA'S FIRST SEASON IN CUP

In addition to her full-time duties in Nationwide, Danica Patrick ran a 10- race schedule in Sprint Cup this year, beginning with the Daytona 500. Patrick's debut in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season was spoiled on the opening lap when she was involved in a multi-car crash. She returned more than 60 laps behind and finished 38th.

Patrick's best finish in Sprint Cup this year was 17th, which came three weeks ago in Phoenix, where she currently resides. Prior to the start of the season, she announced nine of her scheduled races. There had been speculation that Patrick would compete in the July 29 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, but she later revealed the fall event at Kansas would complete her Cup calendar.

"It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot," Patrick said. "It was a big learning year, for sure, doing it for the first time."

Patrick placed 10th in the Nationwide point standings this season, making her the highest-finishing female driver in points for any one of NASCAR's three national touring series. She posted four top-10 finishes. Patrick also claimed the pole for the Nationwide season-opener at Daytona, becoming the first woman to win a pole award since Shawna Robinson last did it 1994.

Patrick, the driver of the No. 7 car for JR Motorsports, was named the most popular driver in Nationwide this year.

"This is a huge honor for me, especially to have it happen during my first full season in NASCAR," she said. "This is a great way to end the season."

Patrick is expected to run a full schedule in Cup next year, with Tony Gibson serving as her crew chief on the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

SEASON SURPRISES

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Sprint Cup this season was Carl Edwards failing to make it into the Chase. Last year, Edwards ended the season in a points tie with Tony Stewart but lost the championship since Stewart had more victories than him.

Edwards also failed to make it into victory lane for a Cup race this year. His last victory came in March 2011 at Las Vegas (69 races ago). Roush Fenway Racing made a late-season crew chief change for Edwards, with Jimmy Fennig taking over the position. He finished this season 15th in points.

While Edwards is hoping to improve in the upcoming season, his former teammate, Matt Kenseth, is looking forward to his new ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kenseth revealed in June that he was parting ways with Roush Fenway at season's end. Several weeks later, JGR announced that Kenseth had signed with the team to replace Joey Logano in the No. 20 car for next year. Logano is moving over to Penske to drive the No. 22.

"It's a big honor to come race for Joe Gibbs Racing," Kenseth said. "I'm really looking forward to working with Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch). They're both at the top of their game. They're both winners, and that puts a lot of pressure on you to be able to go run like those guys do. It's a great opportunity."

Kenseth began the year by winning the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career. He also won at Talladega and Kansas during the Chase, ending the season seventh in points.

 

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