November 28, 2012

The 2012 NASCAR season is in the books, concluded by crowning a new Sprint Cup champion.'s racing writers Lars Anderson, Cary Estes, Dustin Long and Tim Tuttle examine the best and worst of this season, and look ahead at what's to come. (Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.)

Lars Anderson: You have to go with Brad Keselowski. He outperformed the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation (Jimmie Johnson) in the Chase by topping his career average finish at every track of the playoffs. Yes, Keselowski is seemingly getting faster with every lap and, at age 28, his best days are still ahead of him.

Cary Estes: Brad Keselowski. He not only won the championship, but he did it with an impressive combination of victories (five) and consistency (23 top-10s). Over the final 20 races of the season, beginning with his win at Kentucky, Keselowski finished outside the top-10 only three times and was worse than 15th just once. You can't get much better than that. Look for Keselowski to be a regular title contender for the next decade.

Dustin Long: Series champ Brad Keselowski. He closed out the season by scoring 17 top-10 finishes in the last 20 races, and didn't blink in his championship duel with Jimmie Johnson. There are a number of good drivers out there, but Keselowski avoided problems on the track, scored five victories (tied for most of any driver this season) and did just what he had to do to win the championship; he makes this an easy question to answer.

Tim Tuttle: With all due respect to Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson was the season's best driver. He tied Keselowski and Denny Hamlin with five wins and had the most top-five (18) and top-10 (24) finishes. Johnson most likely would have won his sixth Sprint Cup championship if not for the tire failure that put him in the wall at Phoenix followed by the pit stop mistake at Homestead-Miami.

GALLERY: 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup race winners

Anderson: Carl Edwards. A year after finishing second in the final standings to Tony Stewart, Edwards flopped in 2012. He failed to qualify for the Chase, failed to win a race for the first time since 2009 and wound up a career-low 15th in the final standings. I think Edwards will bounce back in 2013 and win multiple races, but many in the garage are for the first time wondering if Edwards will ever again be a legitimate title contender.

Estes: Kevin Harvick. Yes, Carl Edwards went from losing the 2011 championship by a single point to missing the Chase entirely in 2012, but championship runner-ups traditionally have a drop-off the following season. Harvick, on the other hand, seemed poised to make a serious title run this year. He finished third in the point standings in 2010 and 2011 and won seven races over those two seasons. But Harvick managed just one victory in 2012 and dropped to eighth in the final point standings.

Long: It's easy to say Carl Edwards for failing to make the Chase, but I'm going with Jeff Gordon solely for his actions at Phoenix, when he intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer. Gordon had every right to be angry at Bowyer for incidents during the year. Gordon took his shot at Phoenix and then put himself in the wall. The disappointment comes in Gordon slowing so Bowyer could come back around to make a second effort. It's one of the reasons I said Gordon should have been suspended for Homestead.

Tuttle: Carl Edwards. A year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, he had the worst season of his eight full-time seasons in the Sprint Cup series. Not only were there no back-flipping celebrations for winning a race, but also he had career-lows in top-fives (three), top-10s (13) and championship finish (15th). It was a complete collapse for a driver and team (Roush-Fenway) of their ability.

Anderson: Brad Keselowski. Before this season Keselowski had only three career wins and only 11 top-five finishes. This year? Well, he reached victory lane five times and had 13 top-five finishes. He reminds me of a young Tony Stewart, both in his aggressiveness behind the wheel and his force of personality that motivates those around him.

Estes: Clint Bowyer. Not much was expected of Bowyer this season, partly because he has been a second-tier driver most of his career (five victories over six seasons, missed the Chase entirely two of the previous three years) and partly because he was in his first year with the struggling Michael Waltrip Racing team. But MWR improved significantly in 2012, and Bowyer led the way. He had three victories, 23 top-10s and wound up finishing second in the point standings.

Long: Clint Bowyer has shown he can win races but I don't think too many people expected him to win three times and finish second in the points in his first season at Michael Waltrip Racing. When he left Richard Childress Racing for MWR, some people were suggesting it was a step down. Yet, Bowyer, working with a new crew chief and a new team, made it work.

Tuttle: Clint Bowyer. You could always call him Consistent Clint with those top-fives and top-10s that had carried him previously into three Chases, but this was a breakout campaign with a career-bests in wins (three), top-fives (10) and top-10s (23) and a championship finish (second) in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Anderson: Kyle Busch. If you polled the garage, Busch would win in a landslide. His ability to handle a loose racecar is off the charts, but Busch still can get overheated behind the wheel and become his own worst enemy by putting his car in a perilous position. Still, there's a general feeling in the sport that 2013 could be Busch's year. He finished this season with four straight top-four finishes, which means he scored more points over the final month than any other driver.

Estes: Joey Logano. He showed what he is capable of by winning nine times in 22 starts on the Nationwide Series this year. He also picked up a Sprint Cup victory, giving him the same number of Cup wins this season as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, and one more than Carl Edwards. And even though Logano already has four seasons of Cup experience, he is still only 22 and figures to get better. Moving to Penske Racing next season, where he will team up with Keselowski, should be beneficial.

Long: This might be the best group of newcomers working their way toward the Cup series in recent years. Ryan Blaney, the 18-year-old son of Dave Blaney, tops the list. He scored a top-10 finish in his Nationwide debut and won in his third start in the Truck series. He's in the Penske Racing pipeline, which can only mean good things for him.

Tuttle: Joey Logano was a prodigy in his early teens and became the youngest winner in the Nationwide Series at 18 and in Sprint Cup at 19. He didn't make the Chase in four seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he showed enough potential to make it through his contract. He was 16th in points in 2010, and 17th this season. Logano needed a change of scenery and crew chief, and moving to Penske Racing is just what the doctor ordered for him to starting winning races and making the Chase on an annual basis. Once he gets there, championships are possible. It's easy to forget he's only 22 and now has experience to go with his natural talent.

Anderson: It's hard to argue against Paul Wolfe, who sat atop Keselowski's pit box. All season long Wolfe gambled on pit calls (choosing two tires instead of four; staying out during a caution and stretching fuel mileage when everyone else came to pit road) and his risks usually worked out. Wolfe and Keselowski have a close relationship, and this duo should contend for several more championships in the coming years.

Estes: Paul Wolfe. Keselowski and Wolfe have all the makings of being the next Johnson-Knaus combo. Numerous times throughout the season they demonstrated the crucial ability to clearly communicate with each other about what was going on with the car and how to make it better. Plus, Wolfe's fuel mileage decisions were nearly flawless. There is no reason this pairing can't win another championship together (and maybe more than that).

Long: So many to choose. Brian Pattie led Clint Bowyer to three wins and a runner-up finish in the points in their first year together, Chad Knaus had Jimmie Johnson back in the title hunt, Rodney Childers had the No. 55 car running well all season with three different drivers in the car, Steve Letarte returned Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Victory Lane and instilled his driver with added confidence, but I'll go with Paul Wolfe for helping Brad Keselowski win the championship. Wolfe's strategy calls often played a key role in numerous races.

Tuttle: Paul Wolfe. He led a team that put together fast and reliable cars in the garage and made daring and sometimes unorthodox decisions on top of the pit box to get track positions for Keselowski, who capitalized on them to win a championship. It was Wolfe's second season as a Sprint Cup crew chief. Keselowski won three races and finished fifth in the points in Wolfe's rookie year in 2011. Keselowski was 25th in points in 2010. Was Wolfe the only difference? No, but he was the major change.

Anderson: The fall race at Phoenix. Anytime a brawl erupts between pit crews, it creates excitement. This is what happened after Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer late in the race. Look for Bowyer to exact revenge on Gordon in Daytona in February.

Estes: The August race at Bristol. Track owner Bruton Smith insisted that changes made to the track during the spring and summer would produce a more exciting race than the snooze-fest that was on display there in March, and he was correct. There was plenty of action as drivers bumped and banged their way around the tight, high-banked short track. Of course, this produced plenty of anger as well, highlighted by one of the most memorable images of the 2012 season: Tony Stewart flinging his helmet at Matt Kenseth's windshield. Good times.

Long: There were exciting finishes -- the last lap at Watkins Glen was the most entertaining all season followed by the late-race duel at Texas in November between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski -- but I'm not sure there was a race that was exciting from start to finish. The Chicago race was exciting for its subtleties and how crew chief Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski used strategy to win that race, but I'm not sure how many people would classify that an "exciting" race.

Tuttle: Texas in the Chase. Keselowski and Johnson side-by-side on the front row for a green-white-checkered and the winner takes the points lead with two races to go to Phoenix? NASCAR couldn't have drawn it up better than it happened. Johnson, on the outside, pinned Keselowski to the apron on the restart, and gained the line he needed to pass and take a seven-point lead to Phoenix. If Johnson had won the championship, that would be remembered as the move that did it.

Anderson: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s wreck at Talladega. Earnhardt sat out two races with a concussion and he told reporters -- very frankly -- that he had been able to hide concussions in the past. Could these repeated concussions shorten the career of NASCAR's most popular driver? It's certainly a possibility. Now every time Earnhardt is involved in a big crash, he'll be examined closely for another concussion.

Estes: It was one that most people didn't see: the accident by Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a tire-test session at Kansas. Earnhardt later admitted that he began feeling concussion symptoms following that wreck, which eventually led to him sitting out two races in the middle of the Chase. That ended any chance Earnhardt had of competing for the championship, yet another blow to NASCAR in its struggle to improve television ratings and attendance at the track.

Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s accident in a tire test in late August at Kansas Speedway is the most significant for what it eventually stirred -- debate at NASCAR's policy on concussions. That accident only gained attention after Earnhardt suffered a second concussion at Talladega weeks later and admitted he suffered a concussion at Kansas.

Tuttle: Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet hit the wall from a flat right-front tire in the Phoenix Chase race. A 32nd-place finish combined with Keselowski's sixth-place dropped Johnson from seven points in the lead to 20 points behind going to the season finale at Homestead-Miami. It was the crash that most altered the championship picture.

Anderson: The race that the drivers and crews complain about most is Pocono. They say it's too long (even when it's only 400 miles) and too boring. So I say let's not update Pocono (which underwent a significant safety renovation in 2010); let's remove its two dates from the already far too long Sprint Cup schedule.

Estes: Pocono. I am all for keeping the historic older tracks on the schedule, and I like the quirkiness of Pocono's triangle layout compared to so many of the new boring 1.5-mile ovals. But unfortunately, Pocono simply does not produce much exciting racing. Cars quickly become spread out all over place, which is a problem at several tracks but is made worse at Pocono because of its 2.5-mile length.

Long: They all do, after a fan was killed and nine others injured in a lightning strike at Pocono Raceway in August. The tragedy serves as a reminder to tracks of their role in warning fans to oncoming storms and giving them a place to avoid danger.

Tuttle: Talladega. The 33-degree banking on the track needs to be reduced to something in the 18 to 20 range to get rid of the restrictor plate and give the drivers back the horsepower that make the Cup cars so difficult to drive on 13-inch tires. When Talladega opened in 1969, Cup cars were heavier, less aerodynamic and had less horsepower. At 2.66-miles, it would still be uniquely the longest oval in the world and the winner of the race would be based more on skill and teamwork than luck of escaping the big one.

Anderson: The majority of the talk this offseason at the NASCAR headquarters in Daytona should be about how to lure fans back to the sport. TV ratings and attendance were down again in 2012. Why? I'd argue that the biggest reason fans continue to walk away from NASCAR is the lackluster racing. NASCAR is hoping that the new car design in 2013 will produce more passing and more side-by-side racing. We'll see.

Estes: Shortening the races. There is no reason for 500 to be some sort of magical number in NASCAR, yet that continues to be the length of many of the races, either in miles or laps. The result all too often is several hours of tedium followed -- finally -- by 30 minutes or so of decent racing. And at some tracks, such as Darlington, the insistence on reaching the number 500 results in races that stretch on for four hours. NASCAR should take a cue from the NFL and keep races closer to the three-hour window.

Long: The 2013 Car. It's all about the car. If NASCAR can create a package that makes it easier for the drivers to run side-by-side, particularly at 1.5-mile tracks, the better. Forget the marketing and such; it's all about what happens on the track. Have a bad race and people pay less attention.

Tuttle: NASCAR and its tracks need to figure out how to sell more tickets. Empty seats in large patches were everywhere this season. Yes, the economy has made it more difficult and is part of the problem, but the decline had begun before the recession hit. The racing was outstanding this season and the championship intriguing, and maybe that will help bring the fans back next year. Ticketing strategies and other types of entertainment are being utilized and they should help in the long run, getting fans to get back into the habit of attending.

Anderson: Five. The Chase developed into an intriguing battle between an up-and-coming driver and a five-time champion, but other than that this season was positively average. Too many races featured too many long green flag runs (and little passing) and too often the events devolved into games of fuel mileage (yawn).

Estes: Probably no better than a 4. Having somebody other than Johnson and Tony Stewart win the championship at least added some spice to the season, and Earnhardt's return to relevance also helped. But there were still too many boring races to consider the season a success. Hopefully the debut next year of a new line of cars with different aerodynamic characteristics will give the sport a much-needed boost.

Long: Actually, I poll fans weekly with a fan council I created two years ago called the Backseat Drivers Fan Council. Fewer members of my fan council were excited about this season with 74.7 percent giving it a "great'' or "good'' rating. Last year, 84.8 percent in my fan council gave the season a "great'' or "good'' rating.

Tuttle: It's a 9.5. The Stewart/Johnson finish in 2011 was a 10 and Keselowski/Johnson almost reached that level. It became slightly anticlimatic with Johnson's tire failure at Phoenix putting him 20 points down going to the final race at Homestead-Miami and completely anticlimatic when Johnson dropped out with a rear gear failure. But the initial eight races of the Chase, with Johnson leading by seven points with two to go, was perhaps even more exciting than 2011.

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