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.
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.