For the first time in five years, the Sprint Cup Series began its season without Jimmie Johnson as defending champion. 34 points races and two All-Star events later, he's on the verge of opening 2013 in a familiar spot, his only obstacle a late-season charge from new superstar Brad Keselowski.
It's been a long, strange trip to get here, though—from a completely unpredictable Daytona 500, to weeks without almost any cautions midseason, to the tooth-and-nail battle for the championship that we're in right now. There have been plenty of thrills, spills and milestones along the way.
It's hard to pick only 10 exciting moments out of the past 10 months, especially when there are still two weeks' worth of races and a championship to settle. The best, in all honesty, may be yet to come. But it's about time to look back on the rest of the year as we set up the upcoming races in Phoenix and Homestead.
Here are the defining moments of this Sprint Cup season so far.
Just hours before the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July, Penske Racing received word that A.J. Allmendinger had failed a drug test just weeks prior and would no longer be eligible for competition. While the team rushed Sam Hornish Jr. to the track from Charlotte on two hours' notice, Allmendinger requested a test of his "B" sample, which also failed.
Hornish has kept the ride for the balance of the season, while Allmendinger went through NASCAR's Road to Recovery program after Penske let him go. He has since completed the program and returned to competition with Phoenix Racing, with Penske admitting that he could rehire Allmendinger in the future, potentially in a return to open-wheel racing.
October's Kansas race won't go down as one of the highlights of Danica Patrick's first year of part-time Sprint Cup racing. Frustrated with how Landon Cassill was racing her early on, she tried to show her displeasure by spinning the No. 83 car.
The result was a spectacular backfire.
Cassill, who later admitted that he was annoyed how hard Patrick was racing him in the back of the pack, managed to save his car. Patrick, meanwhile, overcorrected her own loose car and put it into the wall, ending her day and drawing the ire of crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
A frustrating 16th-place finish at Chicagoland to start the Chase left Denny Hamlin vowing to come back stronger the next week at Loudon. "We will win next week," he tweeted—only to back off of the statement in the days before the Sylvania 300, claiming that he had never guaranteed anything.
In retrospect, he shouldn't have distanced himself. Despite starting 32nd after his team accidentally left the qualifying tires at race pressures, Hamlin led 193 of 300 laps to score his series-leading fifth race win of the season. Immediately, Hamlin established himself as a bona fide championship contender after a subpar 2011.
In the first race of the season, the non-points Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, fans were treated to the dissolution of the two-car tandem in restrictor plate racing, as well as an incredible job of driving by Kyle Busch. Busch beat Tony Stewart to the finish line by .013 seconds to steal a victory in a race that was popular with both drivers and fans.
But to get there, Busch had to keep his car on track—something that wasn't always easy. The first time, he had to wrestle a sideways car until it straightened out; the second, he compensated for Jeff Gordon running into the back of him to retain control while the No. 24 slid on its roof toward the tri-oval.
In a decision almost unheard of in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to forgo two Chase for the Sprint Cup races after suffering his second concussion in five weeks in the last-lap accident at Talladega in October. The move effectively ended Earnhardt Jr.'s hopes at scoring a championship despite being one of the best drivers in the sport all season.
Earnhardt Jr. underwent concussion testing and sparked a debate about how much power NASCAR should have in limiting drivers' participation after suffering injuries. Meanwhile, Regan Smith handled driving duties for two weeks and converted the opportunity into a full-time Nationwide Series ride for JR Motorsports next year.
After a largely clean race at Talladega Superspeedway last month, one errant block by Tony Stewart caused one of the largest accidents in recent memory. 25 cars were impacted by Stewart's chop down the track, blocking a strong push to the front by Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears.
Stewart ended up on his roof, while the majority of Chase contenders—including Johnson, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer—suffered significant damage. Only Matt Kenseth managed to clear the wreck without having to dodge anything, and he took his second win of the season by doing so.
It had been exactly four years since Earnhardt Jr. had won a Sprint Cup race when the No. 88 team rolled into Michigan in June for the Quicken Loans 400. Starting 17th, he wasn't exactly a pre-race favorite, as four Ford teams had qualified in the top seven and looked like they would battle amongst themselves for the win.
But Earnhardt Jr., driving a special Dark Knight Rises-themed car, dominated in the second half of the race, eventually leading a race-high 95 of 200 laps. After winning the race by over five seconds, he pulled into second in points, only four behind Matt Kenseth.
With four of the strongest teams on the Sprint Cup circuit, Rick Hendrick isn't used to waiting until May to score the first win of his season. But that's exactly what happened this year, when a few missed opportunities meant that he waited until Jimmie Johnson took this year's Southern 500 at Darlington.
Johnson's win completed a 19-year odyssey from the team's first win with Geoff Bodine at Martinsville in April 1984.
This might go down as the most exciting moment of the entire Chase. With 19 laps to go in Sunday's AAA Texas 500, Keselowski led the field to the restart on only two new tires—the result of a gutsy pit call that he made from in the car. Not once, but twice, he managed to put distance on Johnson and Busch with supreme aggression and clutch restarts.
But separate cautions for Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin bunched the field back up, and on the final restart of the race, Johnson got a slightly better jump. He managed to put enough distance on Keselowski to take the win and extend his points lead to seven.
The last lap of the second and final road course race of the season, held at Watkins Glen International in August, was by far the most exciting finish of the summer months.
When leaking oil from Bobby Labonte's car slowed down Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski got into his back and spun him on the final lap, erasing a potential second win that would have put Busch in the Chase.
But defending race winner Marcos Ambrose wasn't willing to concede the win to Keselowski so easily, fighting him tooth and nail on the final lap for the point. The two traded both paint and the lead all the way around the track, even tearing up some grass in the process, before Ambrose finally prevailed.
Afterwards, Keselowski, ever-gracious in defeat, congratulated the victors.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.