The 10 Stories That Dominated NASCAR in 2012
Danica Patrick made her Sprint Cup debut at the Daytona 500. Kasey Kahne rebounded from falling outside of the Top 30 in points to finish fourth in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Tony Stewart announced plans to add a Camping World Truck Series race to his Eldora Speedway in 2013 and Kevin Harvick to his Sprint Cup team in 2014. Dodge announced that it would withdraw from the sport in 2013.
None of those things made this list of the top 10 stories of this NASCAR season, however.
That should illustrate just how interesting a year 2012 was, with enough big stories to keep the sport's press corps busy, week in and week, out from February to November. It seemed like things wouldn't go more than a week without a new front-page story, and for a sport that has seen its ticket sales and TV ratings plummet in the past few years, that's a good thing.
So what made the list?
This article includes a new champion, a high-profile retaliation, some big names swapping rides and the biggest concussion in professional sports, among plenty of other things.
Keselowski Leads a Youth Movement Up Front
At the ripe old age of 28, Brad Keselowski became NASCAR's newest champion, by virtue of a five-win season and staring down five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in one of the best head-to-head Chase battles of all time.
Keselowski also gave team owner Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup title in 40 years of trying, no small feat given the history of that organization. But Keselowski wasn't the only young champion in the NASCAR ranks—Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is 25, while Camping World Truck title winner James Buescher is just 22.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Up-and-Down Year
After four full years of winless efforts, NASCAR's most popular driver scored his only win of 2012, where his drought began in 2008: Michigan International Speedway.
He ran up front for most of the season, even briefly leading the points, until two concussions—suffered in a testing accident at Kansas and a major wreck at Talladega—forced him to sit out two races.
As such, Earnhardt, Jr. came home 12th in points, though his improved performance in 2012 leads to high hopes for 2013.
Matt Kenseth Leaves Roush Fenway
Despite winning the season-opening Daytona 500 for the second time, Kenseth ended a relationship that dated back to 1999 when he chose to leave Roush Fenway Racing after this year.
Citing fewer sponsorship concerns, Kenseth accepted a ride in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing for 2013 and beyond, making the announcement in September after rumors that dated back to June.
In his lame-duck season, Kenseth still made the Chase, scored three wins and finished a respectable seventh in points.
Michael Waltrip Racing Up Front
It's safe to say that nobody expected Clint Bowyer to finish second in points in his first year at Michael Waltrip Racing with a completely new team.
But it's hard to decide if that's the most surprising story with this team—not only did teammate Martin Truex, Jr. make the Chase as well, but the No. 55 car, shared between Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Waltrip himself, was a factor up front week in and week out as well.
Even though Truex fell out of the Top 10 in points at season's end and only Bowyer managed to win races, 2012 was still a banner year for the now-potent MWR.
Team 48 Human After All
The collapse of Jimmie Johnson and his team in the final two races of the season rivaled anything we've ever seen in the Chase era.
Leading Brad Keselowski by seven points going into the penultimate race at Phoenix, Johnson wasn't ever able to gain more than a few points at a time because both drivers were peaking. But a flat tire put Johnson in the wall there, giving Keselowski a 20-point advantage; and despite a shining opportunity to make up that deficit in the season finale at Homestead, a loose lug nut cost Johnson the lead during pit stops. Then, a rear gear broke, costing Johnson both the Championship and second place in points.
The Trials and Tribulations of Kurt Busch
Running with the independent Phoenix Racing after a series of media outbursts got him fired from Penske Racing, Busch struggled to perform both on-track and off it in 2012.
Multiple incidents with Ryan Newman at Darlington landed him on probation, and a verbal assault directed at reporter Bob Pockrass after a Dover Nationwide race landed him a one-race suspension.
But Busch still gave brother Kyle Busch his first Nationwide victory as a team owner at Richmond, and he was still employable enough through all the issues that Furniture Row Racing took a chance on him for the final six races of 2012 and all of 2013.
Significantly Fewer Cautions
With only 216 cautions over the course of the season, this Sprint Cup season was significantly cleaner than any of the past three seasons. Many races saw only a handful of cautions, with the rain-shortened Auto Club race only having one.
Bruton Smith, head of race track conglomerate SMI, suggested that NASCAR should add mandatory cautions to keep races interesting, though the idea was not widely embraced and never came to fruition.
Jeff Gordon Embraces the Hate
Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer had run-ins at both Martinsville races this year, but it was a seemingly innocuous incident at Phoenix that led Gordon to retaliate.
After Bowyer clipped Gordon with eight laps to go, the No. 24 slowed with a shredded tire and damage. Gordon then waited for Bowyer to come around the track in order to wreck him, sending both of them into the innocent car of Joey Logano as well.
Gordon was fined $100,000 and lost 25 points for the incident, while Bowyer attempted to run him down in his trailer after the wreck and still refuses to talk about the incident.
A.J. Allmendinger Suspended
For the first time in three years, a major Sprint Cup driver suffered a drug-related suspension in the middle of the season.
In his first season with Penske Racing, A.J. Allmendinger was removed from his car before the July Daytona race, eventually losing his job after admitting to having taken Adderall.
Unlike Jeremy Mayfield, who elected to fight the system and has not returned since, Allmendinger submitted to NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, was approved to return by October and joined Phoenix Racing for four late-season races.
Generation Six: The Next Great Stock Car
The 2012 season was one of development for NASCAR's new Generation Six vehicle, which will see a new emphasis on manufacturer-specific body shapes, as opposed to the nearly identical Car of Tomorrow concept.
Ford's Fusion, Toyota's Camry and Chevrolet's new SS will contest the next Sprint Cup season. Further completing the aesthetic revolution are new decals that will see drivers' names added to the windshield and an option for sponsor names to appear on the car's roof.
As good as this Sprint Cup season might have been, with the new cars, 2013 has the potential to be that much better.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.