2012 NASCAR Season Had Surprises, Of Course, And More Are Ahead In 2013

Certainly one of the most surprising developments of 2012 was Brad Keselowski’s (right) first career Sprint Cup championship. The title was also the first for his team owner, Roger Penske.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, like all others that have preceded it, had it share of elation and frustration, success and failure and a good measure of surprising developments.

Also, 2012 had a thing or two none of us had ever seen before, and are unlikely to see again. Juan Pablo Montoya’s fiery encounter with a jet dryer at Daytona comes to mind here.

It was mostly in competition that we saw the unexpected, the unusual, success and failure – well, perhaps not entire failure but certainly performances that did not live up to expectations.

And we also saw performances that soared past our expectations.

There are at least two examples of this and my opinion is that the most notable is the overall, breakout performance by Michael Waltrip Racing.

MWR has never been considered a championship caliber team (I’m sure team members will disagree). So for it to place two drivers in the Chase and have one enjoy a “comeback” season to finish second in the final point standings is something very much unanticipated.

Clint Bowyer came over to MWR from Richard Childress Racing, a move necessitated by a lack of sponsorship and which ended a seven-year relationship.

Bowyer will be the first to tell you that he really had no idea what he was getting himself into.

He knew hardly anyone at MWR and no sense of which direction the team would go.

Bowyer had won five races during his tenure with RCR and made it into the top 10 in points in three of five seasons.

Therefore, it was only natural that he wondered if he could approach such performances as the new man at MWR.

Well, he did – and then some.

Bowyer won three races, easily made the Chase and at Homestead, the final event of the season, he finished second to Jeff Gordon.

That allowed him to ease past Jimmie Johnson to take second place in the point standings. That was not only his career-best finish, it was the highest ever achieved by a MWR driver.

To compliment Bowyer’s achievement, MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr., also made the Chase.

Perhaps one of the most disappointing performances of 2012 was given by Tony Stewart. The 2011 Sprint Cup champ never contended for a title in the past season.

He was disappointed that he did not win a race or finish higher than 11th in the standings, but he did qualify for the 10-race “playoff” for the first time since 2007 and the first time with MWR.

MWR’s performance in 2012 clearly indicates it is a team on the rise. More than that, it overcame much of the rather shallow opinions most observers had expressed over recent years.

For 2013 the team’s task is simple: Gather the momentum and use it to create a better season.

I am one of many who suggested that team owner Roger Penske and driver Brad Keselowski would not be a championship contender in 2012.

After all, despite all his efforts with those who drove and worked for him, he had never claimed a title.

And Keselowski? He was in only his third full season of Sprint Cup competition, all with Penske.

As I’ve said more than once maybe we should have seen it coming. By that I mean, Keselowski’s credentials as a driver had steadily improved since his union with Penske.

In 2011 Keselowski won three races and accumulated 14 top-10 finishes to power his way into fifth place in the final point standings.

What he did in 2012 was simple: He got better. He won five times with 23 finishes among the top 10. He was constantly among the point leaders and sealed the championship in Homestead.

Although few thought it would happen, Penske won his first Sprint Cup title and Keselowski became only the third driver to win a championship in his third full season. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were the others.

Even though Penske has left Dodge for Ford, no one will overlook Keselowski in 2013. As it is for every team in a coming season if Penske Racing can adapt quickly to the new Ford, there’s no reason to think Keselowski can’t make it two in a row.

Seems odd to say, but by its standards, Hendrick Motorsports could have had a better season.

Don’t get me wrong. What it accomplished was significant. It put all four of its teams in the Chase, had one driver, five-type champ Johnson, finish a single point out of second place and all four drivers won races.

But with a little touch of fortune here and there, it could have been better for Hendrick.

Kasey Kahne, for example, was expected to flourish. He did win two races but that was fewer than most expected. However, he finished a career-high fourth in points.

Kahne put together a solid second half to earn one of two Chase wildcards. He then rallied from 11th to fourth in the 10-race playoff.

With that strong finish, Kahne might be a contender next season.

But of all the Hendrick drivers – or almost any driver, for that matter – Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a most dramatic 2012 season.

He had to be frustrated over the conclusion. A pair of concussions sidelined him for two races, eliminating any title hopes. However, Earnhardt Jr. had his best season at Hendrick and his best in eight years.

Prior to the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. not only easily made the field but was a serious championship contender.

He won for the first time in four years and was in the top three in points most of the season and led the standings for two weeks in August.

The “Junior Nation” recognized Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence in 2012 and I have no doubt it hopes for better things in 2013. Frankly, I would not be surprised if it got them.

Other things that might have raised our eyebrows in 2012 were the lackluster – by their standards – performances by Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, the 2011 champ. Count on them as two guys looking for redemption in 2013.

As it has always been, NASCAR fans are always eager to see what might evolve in a coming season.

There’s plenty on the menu: How will teams, and NASCAR, adapt to new 2013 models? Can certain drivers, like Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth, adapt with new teams? Is there yet another upstart contender out there? Will we some of the veterans return to winning form?

There’s more, of course, a lot more.

In the end, anticipation and expectation are two things that make NASCAR fun – pure and simple.

On a personal note, thanks to all of you who have visited Motorsports Unplugged over the years. Hopefully you have been entertained and informed.

New content resumes at the first of 2013. Until then, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Hunter’s Long, Dedicated Career In NASCAR Earns His Place In NMPA’s Hall

Jim Hunter enjoyed a long and successful career in many roles with NASCAR and a couple of its speedways. He has been elected to the NMPA’s Hall of Fame.

Before I tell you about my friend, the late Jim Hunter, who is one of the newest members of the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame, I would like to offer a brief history lesson.

There was a time – before my time – when regular NASCAR media coverage was almost non-existent.

Unlike today, when it came to coverage, newspapers held sway. Radio was intermittent and television didn’t care. And, as you can easily determine, cyberspace was unheard of.

So fans garnered most of their news from the hometown newspaper’s sports section. Well, let me amend that – that’s how fans south of the Mason-Dixon line got their news.

Thus a Southern motorsports writer – one who obviously didn’t work for an Indianapolis newspaper – was a valuable guy, not only for his readers, but also for NASCAR.

There were few of them. Most often the news they reported was about their hometown tracks. Any account of NASCAR events elsewhere was presented, tersely, by wire services.

In the 1960s newspapers that considered NASCAR coverage vital were located in Daytona Beach, Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, Florence, Spartanburg, Roanoke, Greensboro, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Birmingham, Greenville, and Bristol.

Their motorsports writers diligently covered the local events, wrote features and offered commentary. But they didn’t roam very far.

Their papers didn’t care to pay for extended coverage.

Hunter came out of the University of South Carolina, where he was a scrawny football wide receiver, and emerged as a sports writer for the Columbia paper.

In his days as a motorsports journalist, Hunter was a familiar figure in the garage area who could claim friendship with such legends as David Pearson (right).

Among other things he was part of the motorsports beat. I am not sure how he accepted that at first but I know he became one of Columbia’s most enterprising writers.

He didn’t believe in anything other than giving his best. How do I know? As I said, he was enterprising. For him, covering a race was one thing – but to report on NASCAR and its people was another, and equally important, part of the job.

Hunter once spent the night in Darlington’s infamous infield to file a piece about the experience.

“As I remember, I didn’t do a particularly good job,” he said.

Well, that is somewhat understandable if you are not prepared for all-night partying, which, I might add, Hunter was. Nevertheless, he did it.

As time pressed on Hunter became a working partner with the late Joe Whitlock. Together they formed a working “corporation” that provided, as a tandem, more than sufficient news and entertainment – especially for the readers of their time.

Everyone in the garage area knew them.

No, they were not the pioneers of NASCAR coverage. Instead, they were innovators.

When I first met Hunter in the mid-‘70s he had moved on to Atlanta.

I was new, but he never regarded me as an upstart. Rather, I was his equal. He offered advice, told stories and never suggested that perhaps I was in over my head.

I listened to every word he said.

Hunter, along with the late Dick Thompson, the public relations director at Martinsville Speedway, counseled me more than once that the best stories in racing didn’t come from the events. They came from the people.

Hunter moved on, and, I might add, to the benefit of his career. He became the public relations director at Darlington, Talladega and NASCAR itself.

He evolved into a role as president of Darlington and then rose to become the vice president of public relations for NASCAR, his position when he passed on Oct. 29, 2010 after a yearlong battle with cancer.

His entire professional life was imbedded in NASCAR.

But it didn’t matter what position he held. He was always himself. There was no sense of self-importance, no air of superiority.

A member of the media was, to him, someone of importance. Why? Simple. He had been one. He knew what the job entailed; what the broadcaster/writer needed.

So he was readily available. He was always a source of information. I know of countless times when he would come into media centers, sit down and answer every question asked of him – and he did so well into the era of the Internet and social media.

He once flew from Daytona Beach to Concord, N.C., just to provide me with an interview.

I once drove to Darlington for another interview and he insisted that we have lunch together – which was at a hot dog stand. But to his unpretentious self, it seemed the natural thing to do.

He always took his calls from the media when he could. When he couldn’t, he returned them.

As a long-time friend I could always banter with him – and I was not alone. I was among the few who called him “Great White Hunter.” Yeah, it was nonsense. But, among us, we knew what it represented.

My fondest memory of Hunter happened several years ago at his headquarters in Daytona.

I was there with a couple of individuals who were in search of NASCAR’s help for a motion picture project, which, I might add, is still in progress.

When they consulted Hunter he told them something I considered to be obvious. He said, “We know you can make this movie with us or without us. We would rather have you do it with us.”

Then he said:

“You are very fortunate to have Steve Waid on board with you. I can assure you this is a good thing. Everybody knows him. Everybody likes him.”

Yes, it was PR. Yes, he was doing his job. However, when he said it there was a significant difference – he looked me straight in the eye as if to tell me he meant every word.

I have never forgotten those words.

Nor, from the days when I searched for my legs as a journalist and to those when I became one, will I ever.

The NMPA has made an excellent choice for its Hall of Fame.

Why?

Not because Jim Hunter was my friend and one to many others.

Rather, it is because it has elected a man whose ultimate lifetime work and dedication were to the sport itself.

And it is so much the better for it.

 

 

 

The 2013 Models Present Teams, And NASCAR, With Wealth Of New Challenges

Matt Kenseth not only faces the challenge of competing in a new car, a Toyota, in 2013, he’s also the newest member of Joe Gibbs Racing.

In 2013 it will be sort of a clean slate for NASCAR. An entirely new fleet of car models will compete on the Sprint Cup circuit, the Toyota Camry, the Ford Fusion and the Chevrolet SS.

These cars are intended to be very fast, of course, while at the same bear a more similar appearance to their street counterparts – which, among other things, is intended to help fans more closely identify with each model.

Gone from NASCAR is Dodge, which, ironically, claimed the 2012 Manufacturers Championship with Penske Racing and driver Brad Keselowski.

That said, there is always uncertainty when teams adopt new car models. Changes and adaptations, some big and some small, are always present.

I might add that has been the case every time NASCAR has made any competitive alterations, be they in car models, engine displacement, aerodynamics, wheelbase size and so forth.

So it follows that the team, or teams, that make the quickest adaptations to the new cars, and the rules that come with them, will be the first to gain a competitive edge.

Boy, I have a great grasp for the obvious, don’t I?

But it is a fact.

We’ve seen it countless times. It happened as recently as the coming of the “Car Of Tomorrow” a few seasons ago.

That diabolically different car – which only vaguely resembled anything we saw on the street – had the vast majority of teams bamboozled.

They didn’t know what to do with it. They kept fooling around with various setups and things of the sort – which put some of them in hot water with NASCAR – until, slowly, a few began to solve the mystery.

It seemed one team, Hendrick Motorsports, found an advantage and for a period of time put a very competitive COT on the track.

But, as it almost always happens in NASCAR, its rivals caught up and were a competitive match.

Brad Keselowski (right) the 2012 champion, will drive Fords next season after Dodge’s pullout from NASCAR. He’ll also have a new teammate in Joey Logano.

Since that time teams have been, for the most part, relatively equal. Now I’m not saying one didn’t have an edge here and there because it did. But I do believe that where it did have an advantage, its rivals held sway elsewhere. So things were reasonably balanced.

I remember that when the COT was introduced I said it would be only a matter of weeks before the teams had it figured out.

Turns out it was a matter of months.

But I think there is ample evidence that, indeed, they did it. And I think they will also get the measure of the 2013 models. Uh, I think I’ll refrain from saying how long it may take.

As said, teams have always had to find a way to adjust to NASCAR changes, whatever they may be. But it’s highly likely that an entirely new car model, which we’ll see in 2013, is going to present a myriad of challenges.

NASCAR has already provided organizations opportunities to adjust, the latest being the test sessions at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Dec. 11-12.

So far teams have been very cautious. They have proceeded slowly and, to me, have tried to be very precise when it comes to analyzing the information they’ve gathered – and it hasn’t been all that much.

They will learn more during added test sessions scheduled into 2013.

For more than one team testing will provide clues to something beyond just a new car. Champion Keselowski, for example, will have to deal with an entirely new manufacturer.

So will Matt Kenseth. He’ll have a different manufacturer but, because he has ended his long tenure with Roush Fenway Racing, he will also have to amend to a new organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, and a new crew and crew chief.

Keselowski will race Fords in 2013. Kenseth will compete in a Toyota.

They are fully aware of the challenges.

“It’s hard to get a great read on the whole manufacturer change because, obviously, it’s a different car,” Keselowski said. “But I think all the signs are there that we have the potential to be just as strong, if not stronger, than we were last year, which is very, very encouraging. We still have to work for it and make it happen.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re only a half-a-day into two really important days, not only for Penske Racing but for the sport itself and, hopefully, we can
continue to show progress.”

Keselowski will have a new teammate in 2013 as Joey Logano moves over from Gibbs. That, too, will require adjustment.

Keselowski is confident.

“I think Joey has the ability to unload at a place and just instantly be fast and that’s not my style,” he said. “It’s something that I would like to add to my arsenal because there are times where that’s really, really helpful, so those are some of the things I look
at.”

As for Kenseth, the 2004 champion, he will readily admit that his adjustments are going to be obviously plentiful. They not only include a new car, but also an entirely new team.

“A lot of the guys have been around for a long time so I know who they are and I’ve spent a little time over at the shop,” he said. “I certainly don’t know them as good as I’m going to or want to and all of that.

“So, yeah, it was different. I’ve got to be honest, it was probably the first time I’ve been nervous in a race car – getting in there and going out for the first time – in as long as I can remember.”

As for that new car, a Toyota, Kenseth takes a cautious approach, as do many others.

“I don’t know what the rules are going to be for sure,” he said. “I don’t have any idea how much they’re going to change or not change. That’s more of a NASCAR call than ours.

“They haven’t really had us testing anything yet and so I’m not sure how different they will be when we come back.”

At this admittedly early point in the development of the 2013 cars, it is reasonable to say teams are not certain of what they have, or of what they many eventually have.

Some will find that sooner than others, for whatever reasons.

In time, these teams will be the ones to move to the forefront and gain a competitive edge.

But, if we look to the past, it doesn’t seem likely NASCAR will let them have it for very long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR’S Accolades For 2012 On The Mark, For The Most Part

Clint Bowyer joined Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2012 season and while good results were uncertain, he won three times and finished second in points, the best year of his career.

NASCAR has compiled its list of the top performances of the 2012 Sprint Cup season and I have to admit I agree with most of them. Well, make that nearly all of them.

I don’t think anyone can argue with its choice for Comeback Driver of the Year.

In 2011, Clint Bowyer earned just one win and missed the Chase in his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Had adequate sponsorship been found, Bowyer might well have stayed with RCR.

Instead he joined Michael Waltrip Racing. This was, many assumed, a backward step. After all, MWR’s record of achievement could not match RCR’s.

Even Bowyer wondered what he was getting into. He admitted he didn’t think his union with MWR would produce immediate success.

However, Bowyer won three times in 2012, all on different tracks – the road course at Sonoma, the short track at Richmond and the intermediate, 1.5-mile layout at Charlotte.

He made the Chase easily and as the 10-race “playoff” wound down, Bowyer’s steady performances helped him leapfrog over a stumbling Jimmie Johnson to take second place in the final standings.

It was easily Bowyer’s career best season and it came with a team that previously didn’t have much of a pedigree. Comebacks don’t get much better than that.

Let’s also consider that Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., also made the Chase, winding up 11th in the final point standings.

Yes, Truex Jr. did not win a race. Yet he finished seven times among the top five – just one short of his last four seasons combined – and 19 among the top 10, as many as the last two years combined.

But in 2011 he had only three top-five finishes and 12 among the top 10. He finished 18th in the point standings.

If you ask me, I think Truex Jr. had a pretty decent comeback season of his own.

Martin Truex Jr. also raced for MWR in 2012 and he too enjoyed a good year, finishing 11th in points to help give his team its best-ever overall performance.

I think what Bowyer and Truex Jr. did in 2012 is going to put MWR in an entirely different light in 2013.

—- NASCAR’s choice for Breakthrough Driver of the Year was a simple, and obvious, one.

Although many of us didn’t see it coming, Brad Keselowski rose in the ranks steadily – well, perhaps for one season – before he powered his way to stardom in 2012.

He raised some eyebrows in 2009 when he won at Talladega driving for maverick team owner James Finch.

In 2010, his first year with Roger Penske Racing, Keselowski did as most newcomers have done in the past with a record highlighted by only two finishes among the top 10.

Needless to say, no eyebrows were raised.

That changed in 2011. Settled in with his team, Keselowski won three races, finished 10 times among the top five and 14 among the top 10. He finished a solid fifth in the point standings.

So when the 2012 season began Keselowski was indeed a person of interest.

But, as I’ve said before, I don’t believe many considered him a championship contender. While he was certainly a member of a good Penske team, it wasn’t the match, for example, of the juggernauts Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing.

In addition he was in only his third full year of competition at NASCAR’s highest level.

But Keselowski roared into prominence quickly. As a contender, he simply would not go away. He won five times in 2012, but more important, he did not fade in the Chase.

Two of his wins and eight of his 13 top-five finishes came during the Chase, a string of steady performances that allowed him to take full advantage of challenger Johnson’s misfortunes over the final two races.

Keselowski’s worst finish in the Chase was a 15th at Homestead – exactly where he needed to finish to assure a championship.

Keselowski joins Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the only drivers to win a title after only three years of competition.

And I would not be surprised, not a bit, if Keselowski wins as many “Driver of the Year” awards as there are out there.

 

—- Among other things, NASCAR listed its Top Team for 2012. Here’s where I disagree somewhat.

The sanctioning body selected Hendrick Motorsports as its top organization and readily admitted the honor usually goes to the championship team.

However, NASCAR said it simply could not ignore Hendrick’s history-making year. It won its 200th race and captured victory in two of NASCAR’s most prestigious races, the Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400.

Hendrick earned a season high10 victories. Johnson led the way with five; Jeff Gordon had two, Kasey Kahne two and Dale Earnhardt Jr. one.

All four drivers made the Chase.

Impressive. I’m not about to argue about that.

But I would suggest that the team that overcame Hendrick; the one that earned the most glory by earning a championship, might have the edge.

No, Penske did not win a 200th race but Keselowski did win five times, as many as Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Penske has been a part of NASCAR since 1972 and competed on a full-time basis for more than two decades. Although he came close a time or two when Rusty Wallace was his driver, he never won a championship – this despite tremendous success in many other forms of competition.

He finally found the Holy Grail in 2012.

Maybe that alone is not enough to make his team the best in 2012, but then, consider this:

Hendrick Motorsports has earned 10 championships. Johnson has won five of them – in a row, no less – in the last seven years.

Heck, Hendrick is expected to win titles. Why not? Over the last decade a season hasn’t passed in which Hendrick was not considered a title contender.

It has always had the equipment, leadership, money, personnel and talent to do so. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that.

So when such a powerhouse gets knocked off, not so much by fate but by the efforts of a lesser team, then I have to think the victor is due the proper recognition.

Certainly Hendrick has gotten its share of it, especially in its championship years.

I don’t think that should be different for Penske.

My point: I think that the “David” that beat “Goliath” is due the same recognition for 2012.

 

 

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