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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shootout Likely Won’t Go Away Soon

Recently I had the privilege of being on Sirius Radio with Dave Ross and Buddy Baker. One of the topics of conversation was qualifying. Specifically, the guys said no one seems to be interested in it any longer and was there a way to get more fans to attend?

One suggestion was that perhaps it would be good for the pole winner to receive championship points. That might provide some motivation for the competitors and give fans a reason to go to the track.

In days gone by drivers had motivation. A pole winner earned the right to compete in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway the next season. That meant more money, sponsorship exposure and track time in an “all-star” event.

I can’t tell you how many times an excited pole-winning driver said, “Hey, we made the Shootout!” in his post-qualifying interviews.

The Shootout began as the Busch Clash in 1979. Because it was open to pole winners only fields were usually small. In 1981, for example, there were only seven cars on the grid.

Few complained, however. It was considered an elite event open to those who had to earn their way into the field.
But things changed when Anheuser Busch brought an end to its Bud Pole program, which, of course, meant that the format for the Shootout’s starting lineup had to be changed.

For a time drivers representing the four manufacturers were selected for the Shootout. But Dodge dropped to only three teams and the method had to be scrapped.

It was recently announced that eligibility for the Shootout has changed again – and it’s the most convoluted ever.
The field will consist of the drivers in the top 12 in the 2010 point standings, past Sprint Cup champions, past Shootout winners, past winners of the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 and the Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year from 2000-2010. Whew!

Given these eligibility requirements the starting lineup for the Shootout will be sizable, perhaps as many as 30 cars.
But at the same time there are eligible drivers who either don’t have rides – John Andretti, for example – or who are not

currently competing in Sprint Cup racing – among them Sterling Marlin, Geoff Bodine, Ken Schrader and Derrike Cope.
It seems to be a bit a stretch, doesn’t it?

I understand – at least I think I do – what NASCAR is attempting. By enlarging the Shootout field with drivers who have, under the criteria, earned their way in is an effort to make the race interesting, not to mention more appealing for fans, whose favorite drivers are almost certain to be competing. Yep, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of them.

It’s been suggested that the Shootout be scrapped. It’s an exhibition event that clutters a season that runs from February to November. Many have already said the Sprint Cup schedule needs to be shortened. So why not do so with the elimination of a meaningless race?

Point well made, but it’s not going to happen.
The Shootout will certainly remain as long as Budweiser forks over the sponsorship money.
Let’s face it, the drivers aren’t going to complain about a chance to earn additional income, get more track time at Daytona and the opportunity to score bragging rights.

And I suspect NASCAR believes it can’t lure fans by taking something away from them.
Yes, the Sprint Cup schedule needs to be shortened and that’s going to take imaginative thinking. Lopping off points races won’t happen because tracks – and NASCAR – need the income. But there may come a day when we see races run during the middle of the week.

And there may also come a day when the Shootout is eliminated, something some have said should happen quickly.
As I’ve said, point well made. But I think it’s more likely to happen later than sooner.

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