As it has been for every NASCAR season, the 2012 Sprint Cup campaign had its share of the unexpected, unpredictable and unusual.
For example, we saw Jeff Gordon’s display of on-track, unsportsmanlike frustration, which we had never seen from a driver long known for his rational behavior.
There was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s failure to win a championship when it was generally assumed he had his best opportunity ever in 2012.
Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t derailed by anything on the track. A concussion caused him to sit out for two races in the Chase – the right thing to do – which effectively wiped out his title hopes.
Kyle Busch has been touted as a title contender for a few years now. After all, he had won 104 races in NASCAR’s three national series coming into 2012.
But this year Busch won only one race. He lost his shot at the Chase in the season’s 26th race, despite the fact he four second-place finishes, four thirds and three fourths.
I don’t think anyone thought Busch, who had won 19 races in the four seasons leading to 2012, would win only once and fail to be a title contender.
I certainly don’t think he thought his year would be what it was.
There are several other examples of similar surprising events and I’m sure you can provide many of them.
To me, there are at least two developments in 2012 that are, perhaps, the most unexpected – and both center around achievement rather than failure.
One involves a brash, young driver who helped bring his long-suffering team owner a first Sprint Cup championship.
The other is the surprising surge to elite status by a team that once was considered mediocre at best and, at worst, inept.
Brad Keselowski won the Sprint Cup title in only his third season with team owner Roger Penske, who had campaigned in NASCAR for decades before he claimed the crown.
It’s hard to believe that Penske, whose cars have won 15 Indianapolis 500s and several championships across various series, needed over 20 years to reach the NASCAR pinnacle.
Prior to 2012, his best years came with driver Rusty Wallace, a man whom many thought would surely bring Penske a title.
Their union lasted from 1991-2005 and it was successful, as evidenced by 36 victories.
Through all those years Wallace finished out of the top 10 in points just three times. The best season was in 1993, when Wallace won a whopping 10 races and finished second in points to friend and rival Dale Earnhardt.
But as good as the Penske-Wallace association was it did not produce a championship.
I don’t believe many folks tagged Keselowski as a potential champ before the season started. Maybe we all should have seen it coming. In his first full season with Penske, Keselowski didn’t win, had just two finishes among the top five and three among the top 10. He was 25th in points.
For a young driver in his first season with a successful team, none of that was out of the ordinary.
But in 2011, Keselowski made his presence known – and then some. He won three times, had 10 finishes among the top five and 14 in the top 10. He was fifth in points.
In two years with Penske Keselowski rose to contender status.
Still, in 2012, he wasn’t widely recognized as such – passed over by the likes of Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.
He fashioned his championship with five victories, 13 top-five finishes and 23 among the top 10.
The title was in doubt until the final two Chase races in which Johnson, bidding for a sixth career title, saw his hopes implode with a series of misfortunes.
“It feels really good,” Keselowski said at Homestead, where he finished 15th to seal the title.
“I can’t believe how everything just came together over the last – what’s it been, three years? “Three years Paul (Wolfe, crew chief) and I have been together.
We’re two for three, Paul, I was just thinking about that.
Two for three. That’s, what is that, a .666 average? That’s pretty good.
“And you know what? I feel like the best is yet to come. I really do.”
As a colorful figure, Keselowski is likely to be a colorful champion.
He’s outgoing, outspoken, opinionated, animated and even controversial. He’s a far cry from “vanilla,” an often used, if unfair, description of Johnson.
Perhaps until his championship, Keselowski achieved his greatest notoriety as the driver who tweeted during a red-flag period in the Daytona 500.
It brought him 100,000 followers.
NASCAR said it didn’t mind at all – nor should it have.
But afterward it quietly told competitors that electronics were not longer permitted on board during races, and that included cell phones.
When Keselowski was nabbed with a cell phone in his car two weeks before the end of the Chase, NASCAR fined him $25,000.
Hey, if nothing else, Keselowski goes into NASCAR history as the first driver punished for using a cell phone.
In 2007, which marked MWR’s first attempt at a full Sprint Cup schedule, the team made headlines at the Daytona 500 – for all the wrong reasons.
NASCAR slapped it with heavy fines and suspensions after it discovered a fuel additive in a MWR Toyota. Some said it was some mysterious concoction while others were convinced the car was loaded with rocket fuel.
It didn’t matter. For MWR, the damage was severe. It was immediately put into a bad light, as was Toyota. Afterward, it’s fair to say few had high expectations for the organization.
In fact, many suggested the team was no more than a very expensive hobby for the effusive Waltrip, whom, it was said, attracted sponsors because he was the ideal pitchman for any company.
I agree with that and I admit I was among several to suggest MWR would not be among the contending teams.
I was wrong – but not about Waltrip as a pitchman, you understand.
For several years MWR dwelled in mediocrity. It got its first win in 2009 with David Reutimann on board. Reutimann also posted its best championship finish, 16th.
But 2012 was the team’s breakout season and established it as one with noteworthy credentials.
The season was the first with Clint Bowyer, who came over from Richard Childress Racing, as one of MWR’s drivers.
Bowyer proved to be an ideal fit. He won three races, finished 10 times among the top five and had 23 finishes among the top 10.
He wound up second in points after Homestead and, obviously, put up the best numbers in MWR’s history.
“We exceeded expectations in 2012 at MWR,” Waltrip said. “So, you know what you do then?
You reset your expectations. So, we’ll have to say we’ve got to win something next year – maybe the championship.”
It must be pointed out that Bowyer was not the lone contributor to MWR’s successful season.
Martin Truex Jr. had 19 finishes among the top 10 and made the Chase. He finished 11th in points.
Veteran Mark Martin ran a 24-race schedule and finished 10 times among the top 10. He also won four poles, which tied him with Johnson and Kasey Kahne for the most in 2012.
And Brian Vickers, whose career was somewhat
derailed by illness, competed in eight races for MWR.
Astonishingly, he finished among the top 10 in five of them – three times among the top five – which suggested to many that Vickers deserved a full-time Sprint Cup ride.
As said, 2012 had plenty of unanticipated developments, something it shares with every previous season.
Stick around. There will be more in 2013.