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NASCAR Sprint Cup: 14 Biggest Storylines of the 2012 Season

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IApril 17, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 14 Biggest Storylines of the 2012 Season

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    The season kicked off seven races ago with the spectacular 54th running of the Daytona 500. For many top drivers, the 2012 season is laden with frustration, and some major storylines have been weird and wacky.

    We have seen events unfold that are unprecedented at NASCAR's top level during this young season.

    There has been a shake-up with drivers who were expected to come out of the gate strong and now languish mid-pack or worse in the point standings.

    Team changes over the winter proved to be very positive for some teams, but for others, the disappointment and lackluster performance is somewhat puzzling.

    In no particular order, the biggest storylines of the season will be highlighted in this slideshow.

Daytona 500 at Night

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    Due to inclement weather, the "Great American Race" was run for the first time in the track's history at night. Not only was it run at night, but in prime time on a Monday night.

    Ratings were pretty good, plus fans like night racing. Running the Daytona 500 at night in the future could be in the cards.

Juan Montoya Hits Jet Dryer

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    An inferno erupted at Daytona when Juan Pablo Montoya attempted to catch up with the field under caution. 

    A mechanical malfunction with his car caused it to careen into the jet dryer that was at the top of the track. The fire caused a delay as crews worked to patch the scorched track.

    Fortunately, there were no injuries, despite the carnage with vehicles and damage to the surface of the track that had to be repaved. Montoya's car now resides in the woods of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s property.

Attendance

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    Attendance has been down at all the tracks this season for a variety of reasons, including the economy, fuel prices, lodging rates and the convenience of staying at home and watching television.

    It was perhaps most evident at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track known as the largest coliseum for sports in the world.

    The half-mile facility seats some 160,000 people, but this last race may have hit only 100,000 filled seats, which is a far cry from the days of perennial sellouts.

    Getting fans back to the tracks is priority one for NASCAR and track promoters.

David Reutimann at Martinsville

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    David Reutimann has the dubious honor of driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, out of Tommy Baldwin Racing, fast enough to stay in the top-35 owner points, so that Danica Patrick won't have to qualify for her 10 races in that car.

    In the final laps of the Goody's Fast Relief 500, Reutimann was off the pace and finally slowed to a stop on the track. He brought out a caution that changed the outcome of the race with a green-white-checker finish.

    Jeff Gordon looked to be the winner of the race as he battled teammate Jimmie Johnson. The restart turned evil, and the two were caught up in a wreck.

    Reutimann and TBR took a lot of flack for trying to keep the car in the top 35. After the race, the car was 36th in the owner points.

The No. 48 Penalty at Daytona

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    Prior to hitting the track at Daytona, NASCAR found the C-posts on Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 to be out of tolerance.

    The team was heavily penalized, and an appeals process by Hendrick Motorsports continued for most of a month. The penalty was eventually overturned except for the $100,000 fine on Chad Knaus.

    NASCAR will be using a C-post template for the upcoming Cup race at Talladega as a result of this incident.

    The No. 48 car that caused all the problems is one more addition to the fleet of race cars assembled by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the woods surrounding his home.

Tony Stewart's Dominance

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    Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, accomplished what seemed to be the unimaginable with five wins in the 10 Chase races of 2011.

    Stewart has continued his dominance with two wins in the seven races of the 2012 season. He shows his strength on intermediate tracks, which just happen to make up a good part of the Cup circuit.

    It was expected that this driver would be strong at Texas, but his 24th place finish in a backup car dropped him to seventh in the standings.

    There is little doubt that Stewart will be a tough contender for wins, and he looks to have secured a place in the Chase already. He likely will be adding to his 46 cup career wins and perhaps his three titles in that series.

What's Wrong with Kyle Busch?

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    Kyle Busch hasn't been much of a hot topic this season with a current ranking of 14th in the point standings.

    Busch finished second at Fontana and sixth at Phoenix, but other than that his finishes haven't been all that good.

    Busch is used to racing in all three of the top NASCAR series, and now he is running his No. 18 cup car full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing and less than half of a season in the Nationwide series.

    Busch is the owner of his NCWTS team and the Monster Energy Nationwide car. He shares driving duties with his older brother, Kurt Busch, in the Nationwide series.

    Could it be the distractions of being an owner and lack of track time that have contributed to his less-than-stellar performance, or is there a problem within the team at JGR?

Where Is Kasey Kahne's Mojo?

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    Kasey Kahne signed to drive for Hendrick Motorsports back in 2010 and spent the 2011 season waiting for his ride in the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet.

    He was expected to leave the gate strong at Daytona and be a contender throughout the 2012 season, but he was 31st in points heading to Texas.

    Bad luck seems to be his constant companion at the tracks with wrecks and an engine failure. He gets fast cars, but his finishes have been disappointing.

    His seventh-place finish at Texas moved him to 27th in the standings, but only wins can guarantee he will be in the Chase.

Bruton and Bristol

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    Bruton Smith is the head man at International Speedway Corporation, which owns Bristol Motor Speedway and a good portion of the tracks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

    He, like many others, was stunned by the low attendance at the Food City 500 several weeks ago. The consensus was that people don't like the racing at BMS since it was resurfaced in 2007.

    The track was known for its bumping and banging that resulted in multiple crashes. The repave allowed for more racing grooves and long green flags.

    Not everyone, including drivers, find that the track needs to be changed, but Smith plans to announce the changes he will make to the track on April 25.

    The goal is more exciting racing for the fall race, in hopes of drawing fans back to the track. We shall see how that works out.

The Surprising Haves and Have-Nots

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    We are only seven races deep into the 2012 season, but it is surprising to take a look at the premier teams who have not found Victory Lane.

    Denny Hamlin secured a win for Joe Gibbs Racing, but Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have not had a win this season.

    The wins have come from Stewart-Haas Racing, Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. Six different drivers have won in the seven races, with Tony Stewart finding Victory Lane twice.

Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick was the media darling at Daytona, where she made her NASCAR Sprint Cup debut behind the wheel of the No. 10 Chevrolet.

    Patrick ran several races, including the Nationwide race and Gatorade Duel qualifying race. Things did not go well for her in those races or the "Great American Race."

    Patrick was the victim of consistent wrecks that were not of her making. She finished 38th in the Daytona 500 as a result of a crash.

    Though attention seems to be mellowing with her regular appearances in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, she will once again grab the spotlight when she rolls into Darlington in May.

200th Cup Win for Hendrick Motorsports

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    Since last fall, the wait for Hendrick Motorsports 200th cup win has continued. Each week they lug the celebratory hats from track to track.

    Each of the four drivers wants to be the one to get that win for the boss.

    HMS drivers have finished second and looked to be going for wins, but they failed to close the deal. So, the wait goes on as each of the four drivers strive to be the one that gets the 200th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    The winless streak for Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed to 136 after the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas.

    Though Junior has started strong during the past few seasons, he seems to be more focused and intent on winning this season, perhaps as a result of the chemistry between Earnhardt and his crew chief.

    Who would have thought that he would be the highest of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the point standings since the start of the season?  He remains in third place, tied with second place Matt Kenseth.

    Jimmie Johnson is gaining momentum and ranks eighth in the standings. Jeff Gordon has had strong cars, but he remains 17th in the points, while Kasey Kahne sits in the 27th slot.

    Junior has three top-five finishes and finished 10th twice, with his worst finish at 15th. The key to proving his strength this season may come during the streak of races through the late spring and summer.

    It is time for him to win races and prove he is truly back in the game big time.

The New Michael Waltrip Racing

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    Michael Waltrip made massive changes during the offseason in hopes of elevating his operation to top-tier status.

    From the performance we have seen out of his drivers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin, it appears he is looking solid and contending for wins with his stablemates.

    Truex is fourth in the standings, and Bowyer is 10th following the Texas race. Martin has had a fast car that runs in the lead pack, but he is 20th in the points with his part-time schedule.

    Wins are sure to come for MWR, and Truex is likely the one who will be in Victory Lane first.

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