NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

 
      === The Inside Line: Looking back at the 2012 Sprint Cup season ===
 
 By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
 
 Las Vegas, NV (Sports Network) - From Juan Pablo Montoya's freak accident in
 the Daytona 500 to Brad Keselowski winning his first Sprint Cup championship,
 this season in NASCAR's premier series was an eventful one to say the least.
 
 NASCAR is in Las Vegas for its "Championship Week" celebration, with
 Keselowski being honored as the new Sprint Cup titleholder. What a year it's
 been for the 28-year-old Twitter-crazed driver who hails from just outside of
 Detroit.
 
 Keselowski became a social media sensation when he tweeted photos and
 commentary of Montoya's crash that occurred during a caution in the Daytona
 500 -- delayed one day for the first time in its history due to rain. After
 getting up to speed following his pit stop, Montoya lost control of his car
 and slammed into the back of a track-drying vehicle, which burst into flames
 and then created a fire in the turn three area where approximately 200 gallons
 of jet kerosene spilled onto the track surface. During a two-hour stoppage of
 the race for track repairs, Keselowski pulled his phone out of his driver-suit
 pocket and posted tweets of the incident. Within hours, he generated more than
 100,000 new followers on Twitter. NASCAR would later ban drivers from using
 electronic devices while in their cars during competition.
 
 Nine months after the Daytona 500, Keselowski went on capture the championship
 after an intense battle with Jimmie Johnson during the Chase for the Sprint
 Cup.
 
 There was a lot of drama both on and off the track from the Daytona 500 to the
 season-finale in Homestead (Fla.). A.J. Allmendinger was suspended for failing
 his drug test. Kurt Busch got into trouble with NASCAR again. Clint Bowyer and
 Jeff Gordon's teams had at it in Phoenix, and Dodge bid farewell to the sport
 at season's end.
 
 All in all, stock car racing's biggest circuit had another entertaining year.
 
 
 NEW CHAMP
 
 Either Johnson or Tony Stewart had won the championship each year from
 2005-11, but Keselowski is now on top of the Sprint Cup world.
 
 In his third full-season of Cup competition and with Penske Racing, Keselowski
 notched five wins and 23 top-10 finishes in 36 races. He clinched the series
 title by 39 points over Clint Bowyer and 40 ahead of Johnson, who faltered in
 the last two Chase races.
 
 Keselowski began the season with a 32nd-place finish in the Feb. 27 Daytona
 500 and did not crack the top-10 in points until the June 10 race at Pocono.
 He won the June 30 event at Kentucky and remained hot from there, finishing
 outside the top-10 just three times during the remainder of the season.
 
 "We didn't start at Daytona the way we wanted, got caught up in a wreck, but
 we knew we had some speed in our cars," Keselowski said. "As the middle of the
 season and the spring came through, we had those fuel issues, but we rallied
 deep, found a way through them, and when the summer stretch came, we didn't
 have the speed we wanted through the summer. What we did have was execution
 that was incredible, and I knew it right away.
 
 "I remember some of those races, the spring Pocono race, where we had troubles
 with some part on the car and we fixed it and came back from what should have
 been a 30-something place day and finished (18th), and I knew right then,
 those days right there, I knew if we could do that in the Chase with speed
 then we could win it."
 
 Keselowski won two of the first three Chase races -- Chicagoland (Sept. 16)
 and Dover (Sept. 30). His worst finish in the postseason came in the Nov. 18
 finale at Homestead, where he placed 15th.
 
 Keselowski and Johnson were the only ones who led in the point standings
 during the 10-race Chase. Johnson took over the top spot after winning on Nov.
 4 at Texas, but his quest to win a sixth Sprint Cup championship took a big
 hit one week later at Phoenix, where he finished 32nd after making contact
 with the wall and fell 20 points behind Keselowski.
 
 Johnson ended his season third in the rankings following his 36th-place finish
 at Homestead.
 
 "Sure, I feel disappointed that we didn't get the championship, but a large
 part of my feeling is satisfied, and I feel good about the year," Johnson
 said.
 
 After a rough rookie season in Cup two years ago, Keselowski was reunited with
 crew chief Paul Wolfe for 2011. Wolfe guided him to the 2010 Nationwide Series
 championship. The two made incredible headway during the second half of the
 '11 season. They earned a wild card spot in the Chase and went on to finish
 the year fifth in points.
 
 "I had a pretty good idea what we needed to do to win the championship at the
 end of last year to be quite honest," Keselowski said. "We didn't quite
 execute as strongly as we needed to. We finished strong and finished fifth in
 the points, but that process was certainly a learning process. I think we
 applied some of those lessons to 2012."
 
 Keselowski gave Roger Penske his first championship in NASCAR's top division.
 Penske, who has 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner in the
 IndyCar Series, has been fielding cars in the Cup Series since 1972. It ended
 the longest non-championship streak among current ownership. His previous best
 points finish was second with Rusty Wallace in 1993.
 
 "It's a goal that I wanted to achieve, and I tried hard," Penske said. "We
 were close in 1993 with Rusty finishing second and then third in 1994. That's
 a long time ago.
 
 "The competition has gotten tougher, and I think that any one weekend there's
 10 or 15 cars that can win, and I think for us to be able to have the
 continuity, and it's a team, we've built a special team here, and I'm proud to
 be the leader."
 
 Keselowski also became the first Dodge driver to win a championship since
 Richard Petty last did it in 1975.
 
 When Penske announced earlier this year its switch from Dodge to Ford in both
 Sprint Cup and Nationwide next season, it ultimately led to Dodge's decision
 to exit the sport.
 
 
 THE RESURGENCE OF MWR
 
 For the first time in its history, Michael Waltrip Racing was represented in
 the Chase, not just one team but two. Martin Truex Jr. and Bowyer qualified
 for the playoffs this year.
 
 Bowyer had a superb season in his first year with MWR, as he recorded a
 career-best three wins, including one in the Oct. 13 Chase race at Charlotte.
 
 "It's huge to end up second in points and beat guys like Jimmie Johnson to do
 it," Bowyer said. "There's several races - had I had to do over again - I wish
 they would've been different. Talladega was the biggest one. We just got
 behind at Talladega and never could really bounce back. I'm proud of
 everybody, because we were there all season long."
 
 Truex has not won a Sprint Cup race since June 2007 at Dover but came close in
 both events at Kansas this year. He ended the season 11th in points.
 
 
 THE BRAWL AT PHOENIX
 
 One of the most memorable fights in NASCAR took place in the Nov. 11 race at
 Phoenix. Mayhem broke out in the garage area where crew members from Bowyer
 and Gordon's teams really had at it after Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer
 in the closing laps of the race.
 
 Bowyer and Gordon's feud had been escalating throughout the season, and it
 reached the boiling point at Phoenix. With the season now over, there's still
 some tension between the two.
 
 "It's been pretty awkward," Gordon said on Thursday in Las Vegas. "I thought
 he might have been over it at least enough to look at me, but he won't even
 look at me. It's so unlikely. Clint gets along with everybody, and I got along
 with him very well up until this point. It's not what I was expecting, but it
 happened."
 
 Gordon avoided being suspended for Homestead, but NASCAR did penalize the
 four-time series champion with a fine of $100,000 and a loss of 25 points as
 well as probation for the remainder of the year. He won a Cup race at
 Homestead for the first time in his career, while Bowyer finished right behind
 him in second.
 
 
 ALLMENDINGER'S SUSPENSION
 
 Allmendinger became the second Sprint Cup driver to be suspended for failing a
 drug test since NASCAR revised its substance abuse policy prior to the start
 of the 2009 season. Allmendinger was placed on suspension, starting with the
 July race at Daytona, after he failed his initial test at Kentucky. When his
 "B" sample tested positive several weeks later, he immediately participated in
 the sanctioning body's "Road to Recovery Program."
 
 Following his suspension, Allmendinger was released from Penske Racing. He had
 replaced Kurt Busch in Penske's No. 22 car for this season.
 
 Allmendinger said he tested positive for Adderall, a drug typically
 prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He had also noted
 that he used the amphetamine only one time.
 
 After successfully completing the recovery program, NASCAR reinstated
 Allmendinger. Later in the season, he drove the No. 51 car for Phoenix Racing
 at Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville and Texas.
 
 Jeremy Mayfield failed a drug test in May '09 and has not competed in a NASCAR
 race since then.
 
 
 ONE-RACE BAN FOR KURT BUSCH
 
 It would be an unusual year in NASCAR if one or both Busch brothers didn't get
 into trouble. While Kyle did not make a lot of fuss this season, his elder
 brother, Kurt, did.
 
 NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch for the June race at Pocono after officials
 determined he violated his probation when he verbally abused a reporter from
 The Sporting News following the completion of the June 2 Nationwide race at
 Dover. Busch had been on probation for an altercation he had with Ryan
 Newman's team in the May 12 Sprint Cup event at Darlington.
 
 After losing his job with Penske for his outburst in last year's season-finale
 at Homestead, Busch landed a ride with Phoenix Racing. Busch had a one-year
 verbal agreement with team owner James Finch to drive the No. 51, but he
 departed the team in October and joined Furniture Row Racing to replace Regan
 Smith in the No. 78 for the final six races.
 
 "Finishing the season with three straight top-10s and four straight top-15s,
 you just can't ask for much more in a short period of time together," Busch
 said in regards to his six races with Furniture Row, in preparation for the
 upcoming season. "We've made a tremendous amount of progress in the last six
 weeks, and that gives all of us plenty of confidence heading into the
 off-season."
 
 
 EARNHARDT JR's UP AND DOWN YEAR
 
 Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was voted as NASCAR's most popular driver for the 10th
 consecutive time, had quite a season.
 
 Earnhardt Jr. ended his four-year winless streak in June at Michigan. He sat
 no lower than sixth in points during the regular season, making the Chase for
 the second straight year. But Earnhardt Jr. was forced to sit out Charlotte
 and Kansas after being diagnosed with a concussion that he suffered during a
 multi-car wreck on the final lap of the Oct. 7 race at Talladega. He also
 sustained a concussion during a crash while participating in the Aug. 29
 Goodyear tire test at Kansas. The Hendrick Motorsports driver ended the season
 12th in points.
 
 "I've learned a ton about what I went through," Earnhardt Jr. said when he
 returned to competition the last weekend in October at Martinsville. "I feel
 like I'm a lot smarter and a lot more prepared and understand the situation a
 lot better now than beforehand."
 
 After being relieved of his driving duties at Furniture Row, Smith substituted
 for Earnhardt Jr. during his two-race absence. He finished 38th at Charlotte
 due to engine failure and then seventh at Kansas.
 
 Smith will drive the No. 5 car for Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide team, JR
 Motorsports, next year. He won the Nationwide season-ending race at Homestead
 in his debut with the team.
 
 
 DANICA'S FIRST SEASON IN CUP
 
 In addition to her full-time duties in Nationwide, Danica Patrick ran a 10-
 race schedule in Sprint Cup this year, beginning with the Daytona 500.
 Patrick's debut in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season was spoiled on
 the opening lap when she was involved in a multi-car crash. She returned more
 than 60 laps behind and finished 38th.
 
 Patrick's best finish in Sprint Cup this year was 17th, which came three weeks
 ago in Phoenix, where she currently resides. Prior to the start of the season,
 she announced nine of her scheduled races. There had been speculation that
 Patrick would compete in the July 29 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, but she
 later revealed the fall event at Kansas would complete her Cup calendar.
 
 "It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot," Patrick said. "It was a big
 learning year, for sure, doing it for the first time."
 
 Patrick placed 10th in the Nationwide point standings this season, making her
 the highest-finishing female driver in points for any one of NASCAR's three
 national touring series. She posted four top-10 finishes. Patrick also claimed
 the pole for the Nationwide season-opener at Daytona, becoming the first woman
 to win a pole award since Shawna Robinson last did it 1994.
 
 Patrick, the driver of the No. 7 car for JR Motorsports, was named the most
 popular driver in Nationwide this year.
 
 "This is a huge honor for me, especially to have it happen during my first
 full season in NASCAR," she said. "This is a great way to end the season."
 
 Patrick is expected to run a full schedule in Cup next year, with Tony Gibson
 serving as her crew chief on the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team.
 
 
 SEASON SURPRISES
 
 Perhaps the biggest surprise in Sprint Cup this season was Carl Edwards
 failing to make it into the Chase. Last year, Edwards ended the season in a
 points tie with Tony Stewart but lost the championship since Stewart had more
 victories than him.
 
 Edwards also failed to make it into victory lane for a Cup race this year. His
 last victory came in March 2011 at Las Vegas (69 races ago). Roush Fenway
 Racing made a late-season crew chief change for Edwards, with Jimmy Fennig
 taking over the position. He finished this season 15th in points.
 
 While Edwards is hoping to improve in the upcoming season, his former
 teammate, Matt Kenseth, is looking forward to his new ride with Joe Gibbs
 Racing.
 
 Kenseth revealed in June that he was parting ways with Roush Fenway at
 season's end. Several weeks later, JGR announced that Kenseth had signed with
 the team to replace Joey Logano in the No. 20 car for next year. Logano is
 moving over to Penske to drive the No. 22.
 
 "It's a big honor to come race for Joe Gibbs Racing," Kenseth said. "I'm
 really looking forward to working with Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch).
 They're both at the top of their game. They're both winners, and that puts a
 lot of pressure on you to be able to go run like those guys do. It's a great
 opportunity."
 
 Kenseth began the year by winning the Daytona 500 for the second time in his
 career. He also won at Talladega and Kansas during the Chase, ending the
 season seventh in points.
 
 11/30 18:18:54 ET

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