- Published on Wednesday, 12 December 2012 10:37
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From the first prime-time Daytona 500 through Keselowski and owner Roger Penske’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, the 2012 season was filled with drama, intrigue and more than a few “Top Performances.” Here are a few of them, and of course, the choices are up for discussion.
Brad Keselowski: His series-high five wins notwithstanding, Keselowski’s clutch playoff performance may live as the most memorable chapter from his first championship. He tallied two wins and eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase. His worst finish was just 15th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway – the exact finish he needed to guarantee the championship. In the last 40 years, Keselowski became only the third driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title within his first three seasons, joining NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.
Jimmie Johnson (Honorable Mention): A missing lug nut and a rear gear problem in the season finale destroyed any chance of a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for Johnson, one of the few blemishes in yet another brilliant season. Johnson led the series in Driver Rating with a 109.5 and tied for the series-high in wins (five), including his record-tying fourth victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Comeback Driver of the Year
Clint Bowyer: In 2011, Clint Bowyer eked out one win, at Talladega, and missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Even Bowyer admitted that his move to Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2012 season likely wouldn’t lead to immediate success. Wrong. Bowyer won three times this season, leapfrogging Jimmie Johnson in the season finale at Homestead to finish a career-best second in points. Those three wins all came on different layouts – road course (Sonoma), short track (Richmond), and intermediate (Charlotte). Along with teammate Martin Truex Jr., the duo gave MWR its first Chase berth since joining the series fulltime in 2007.
Greg Biffle: One of the more understated drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, slogged through an uncharacteristic 2011 season. He went winless, with only three top fives and 10 top 10s, missing the Chase en route to a 16th place points finish. This year? Call it a comeback, a big-time one. Biffle won twice, with 12 top fives and 21 top 10s, the latter tying a career-high. Holding the points lead after a series-high 14 races this season, he finished fifth in the final standings, his third top-five points finish and first since 2008.
Hendrick Motorsports: Usually this spot is reserved for the championship team, but it’s impossible to ignore – and tribute – Hendrick Motorsports’ history-making and milestone-achieving season. HMS, with Jimmie Johnson at the wheel, captured its 200th victory in one of NASCAR’s crown jewels – the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It also won the Brickyard 400, also with Johnson. In all, HMS had a series-high 10 victories (Johnson, 5; Jeff Gordon, 2; Kasey Kahne, 2; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 1) and placed all four of its drivers in the Chase.
Penske Racing|: With Brad Keselowski leading the improbable charge, owner Roger Penske won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in a NASCAR career that began in 1972. The No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge won five races, which was tied for the series high with the No. 48 driven by Jimmie Johnson and the No. 11 driven by Denny Hamlin. Penske’s other fulltime car – the No. 22 Dodge – chipped in a Coors Light Pole at Kansas Speedway by AJ Allmendinger, along with four top-10 finishes (three by Allmendinger; one by Sam Hornish Jr.)
Top Breakthrough Performance
Brad Keselowski: In 2011, Keselowski made the Chase as one of the two Wild Card contenders. This year, he made it as the fourth seed. There’s little reason to believe his meteoric rise to stardom won’t continue for years to come. Keselowski’s five wins this season came on some of the tougher tracks in the series, including Bristol, Dover and Talladega. But his ability to brush off pressure – and a five-time champion – during the Chase made him a champion, and a breakthrough performer.
Honorable Mention: Martin Truex Jr., Truex’s “breakthrough” was a long time in the making. Since his first Chase appearance in 2007, from 2008-11, his average points finish was just 19.5. This season was a rebirth of sorts for the New Jersey native. He had seven top-10 finishes, which is one short of the last four seasons combined. His 19 top-10 finishes are as many as the last two years combined. And his season-ending Driver Rating of 95.6 ranked 11th – which was also his final points position.