NASCAR Sprint Cup: Biggest Storylines of the 2012 Season at the Halfway Point
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Technically, the official halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season occurred last Saturday night at Daytona, where the sport's top division capped off the 18th of 36 Sprint Cup Series races.
But this week marks the final break of the 2012 season for the boys of Sprint Cup, as well as the final network switch of the year as TNT's Summer Series comes to an end and ESPN takes over the for the season's final 17 races.
It is for that reason we will call this week the halfway point of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. After all, if Major League Baseball can have its "halfway" point closer to the end of the season than the beginning, why can't we?
In the season's first half, we've had lots to talk about. From surprises to disappointments, from suspensions to silly season mayhem, the 2012 season has left us with plenty of around-the-water-cooler topics.
It's been a wild ride in the first half of this Sprint Cup season. Let's relive it by taking a look back at some of the biggest storylines from the first half of 2012.
1. A.J. Allmendinger's Suspension
A.J. Allmendinger was suspended at Daytona for a failed drug test
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Nobody saw this one coming.
After struggling through the first 15 races of the 2012 season in his new ride at Penske Racing, A.J. Allmendinger had finally strung together back-to-back top-10 finishes and appeared destined for a solid second half.
Then it all fell apart.
Allmendinger was suspended indefinitely prior to last weekend's race at Daytona for failing a random drug test. It is believed that the 30-year-old Californian tested positive for a "stimulant," which could be anything ranging from methamphetamine, which Jeremy Mayfield tested positive for in 2009, to an ingredient in an energy drink.
Allmendinger is cooperating with NASCAR and trying to figure out what may have triggered the positive test. He's having a B-sample tested this week.
Should that come back negative, Allmendinger could be in the clear. If it comes back positive, it doesn't automatically condemn Allmendinger, but the situation could drag out awhile longer.
2. Matt Kenseth on the Move
Matt Kenseth is leaving long-time home Roush-Fenway Racing at season's end
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Almost as stunning as Allmendinger's suspension was the announcement that Matt Kenseth will have a new home in 2013.
Kenseth will be leaving Roush-Fenway Racing at the end of the 2012 season after driving for the team in the Sprint Cup Series full-time since his rookie year in 2000.
Perhaps the most shocking part of this announcement was that it came in a year when Kenseth has dominated the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings. He also won the season-opening Daytona 500.
The rumor is that Kenseth will drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, though that has not been confirmed at this point.
What we do know is that Kenseth will not be in the No. 17 for Roush-Fenway next year, and that will be strange to see.
3. Penske Returning to Ford
Penske Racing will move to Ford for the 2013 season
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The two cars from the Penske Racing stable have been the lone bullets for Dodge in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
That will change, as the team will switch to Ford for the 2013 season, with Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 and the status for the No. 22 up in the air.
The move marks a homecoming of sorts for Penske, who fielded Fords at NASCAR's top level for a long time before moving to Dodge in 2003.
The move left more questions than answers. Which Sprint Cup teams will be willing to move to Dodge to keep the manufacturer in the sport? Where will Penske get its engines in 2013? What will become of its current engine program?
What hasn't been questioned, however, is the effort by both Dodge and Penske in 2012. Only defending Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart has as many wins as Keselowski with three, and the No. 2 team looks capable of competing for a championship in 2012.
4. The Rise of Michael Waltrip Racing
Michael Waltrip Racing has been stellar in 2012
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The most pleasant surprise of 2012 has been the rise of Michael Waltrip Racing.
Through the first 19 races of the season, both MWR's full-time drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, have been solid if not spectacular.
Bowyer was the first driver to break into the win column for MWR in 2012 with his dominating performance at the road course in Sonoma. Both he and Truex sit solidly in Chase position with Truex leading the way in eighth and Bowyer close behind in ninth.
Mark Martin and Brian Vickers have spent the majority of the season splitting time in the team's No. 55 car. Martin has two top fives and five top 10s in 12 races, while Vickers has a pair of top fives in just four races.
All three cars are operating on all eight cylinders right now. Expect more of the same in the second half.
5. The Return of Dale Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Victory Lane on Fathers' Day at Michigan
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Junior Nation has had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2012.
Perhaps no reason was greater than Father's Day, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into Victory Lane for the first time since 2008 at Michigan International Speedway, the same track where Junior's four-year winless streak began.
But Earnhardt Jr. hasn't been a one-hit wonder in 2012. While he's still looking to add to his win total, Junior leads the series in top 10s with 14 and his eight top fives rank behind only Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who each have nine.
Earnhardt Jr. also sits second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, trailing Kenseth by just 16 points.
Junior looks to be back to his pre-Hendrick Motorsports form through the first half of 2012, and it may not be a stretch to say he could challenge for the championship.
6. Carl Edwards Continues "Curse of the Runner-Up"
Carl Edwards has had a rough go of it in 2012
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Since Carl Edwards finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2008 Sprint Cup standings, the runner-up from each season has undergone a curse the following year.
Edwards went winless in 2009. Mark Martin, the 2009 runner-up, went winless and missed the Chase in 2010. Denny Hamlin, the 2010 runner-up, had the worse average finish of his career and won just once in 2011.
Edwards was the runner-up in 2011, and the curse has continued in 2012.
Through 19 races, Edwards has not looked the part of a Chase contender. He has no wins and looked capable of winning exactly once, which was at Richmond back in May.
Edwards has just two top fives and nine top 10s through 19 races. Nobody in the top 12 in points has fewer in either category.
Edwards could still make the Chase, but if his struggles through the first half continue it's unlikely to happen.
7. Jeff Gordon Is Just Plain Cursed
Jeff Gordon's season started out bad and never got better
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Perhaps Jeff Gordon's 2012 season was doomed from the get-go.
It started in the Budweiser Shootout with a wild barrel-roll in the closing laps of the exhibition race and continued in the Daytona 500 after a blown engine set his car aflame while running in the top 10.
Things never got better.
Among Gordon's rotten bits of luck were three blown tires at Darlington, an ill-timed rain shower at Fontana, getting swept up in a wreck while coming to pit road in the July race at Daytona and whatever this was at Martinsville.
There really is no explanation for this bout of bad luck for Gordon, which has relegated him to 17th in the standings and leaves him with slim hopes for making the Chase.
8. Kasey Raising Kahne
Kasey Kahne has won twice in 2012
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Kasey Kahne has come a long way from the start of the 2012 season.
When the year began, the Hendrick Motorsports newbie was clearly trying to do too much. He was caught up in four wrecks in the first four races, two of which were of his making, and had four finishes outside the top 20 after just six races.
But Kahne, who sat 31st in the standings after six races, began settling in at Texas. He earned one top 10. And then another. And then another.
Finally, Kahne broke through with a win on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte, where he'd won three times before. He broke into the top 15 in the standings with that victory and earned his second win of the year this past weekend at New Hampshire.
Kahne now sits a season-best 12th in the standings and is the only driver outside the top 10 with multiple wins this season. His climb through the standings continues as he leads the wild-card race.
Kahne now looks capable of not just making the Chase, but making a run at the title.
9. Joey Logano Racing for a Ride
Under the pressure of a contract year, Joey Logano is having the year of his life
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No driver was on the hot seat coming into 2012 more than Joey Logano.
Through the first two races, he looked ready to answer the call, putting together back-to-back top 10s to start the year. Then he struggled for awhile, posting zero top 10s until the season's 11th race at Darlington.
Around the All-Star race Logano began to get hot, posting three top 10s in four races including a breakthrough win after dominating from the pole at Pocono. Logano has notched two top 10s in the four races since, including a fourth at Daytona.
In a contract year, Logano is putting together the best season of his career. He's 16th in the standings, just 13 points out of a coveted wild-card spot.
The question is, will it be enough to keep his ride? If he can make the Chase, he'll probably retain a spot on Joe Gibbs' roster. If not, his status will likely be up-in-the-air.
It's been a compelling story to watch so far and should be just as fun to keep an eye on in the second half.
10. Everything Kurt Busch Has Done
Kurt Busch has been one of the most entertaining stories every single week
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Everything Kurt Busch has done in 2012 seems to have made headlines.
Busch appeared to come into the 2012 season a changed man. He had a new team and a new outlook on life and racing. But some early struggles, including crashes in two of the season's first three races, seemed to change that.
Sure, Busch has had some good moments, including a pair of wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and a weekend full of entertainment at Talladega when he took to the track decked out like Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights.
But the bad has outweighed the good. Busch got in trouble at Darlington after a late crash with Ryan Newman and an ensuing burnout through Newman's pit stall led to a heated exchange on pit road.
Probation from that incident led to a suspension a few weeks later after an incident at Dover, where Busch made comments toward Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass that NASCAR deemed "threatening."
In short, Busch has left us with plenty to talk about so far in 2012 and will likely continue to do the same for the rest of the year.