NASCAR's 12 Biggest Stars of 2012

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IDecember 25, 2012

NASCAR's 12 Biggest Stars of 2012

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    When it comes to having star power, this NASCAR season lit up the racing world like the night sky.

    2012 marked the last year of NASCAR's "Car of Tomorrow" era, a time that had produced a champion for the ages in Jimmie Johnson. But with the end of any era comes the end of a reign as well, and Johnson was taken down head-to-head in a championship battle for the first time since reaching the top.

    In the lesser two national series, a pair of championship battles came down to the wire between some of the sport's future superstars. One series saw a repeat winner, while the other saw both driver and team take home a championship for the first time.

    We saw new stars rise to take the place of old ones, former leaders return to past glory, and when all was said and done, a legend of the sport accomplishing a monumental feat in stock car racing for the first time. So who were NASCAR's twelve biggest stars in '12? Read on:

12. James Buescher

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    In 2011, despite failing to qualify for an early-season race, Buescher still challenged for the Camping World Truck Series title until the bitter end.

    This year, without having to worry about missing a race due to owners' points, he stepped up his game, scoring the first four wins of his Truck career and taking Turner Motorsports' first championship.

    The icing on the cake, though, came during Daytona Speedweeks, when Buescher won the season-opening race—in the Nationwide Series, where he'll likely drive next season.

11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Stenhouse became the first driver to win two consecutive titles for Roush Fenway Racing after taking home his second consecutive Nationwide championship this year, taking six wins to triple his 2011 output and defeat Elliott Sadler once again.

    He also earned his way into a bona fide championship ride at Roush on the Sprint Cup side, running the famous No. 6 in four 2012 races as a tune-up for a Rookie of the Year bid in 2013 driving the No. 17 car.

10. Danica Patrick

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    NASCAR's newest superstar finally left IndyCar behind for good in 2012, running a full Nationwide schedule and starting 10 Sprint Cup races.

    The results were mixed—lukewarm, at best—but despite the revolving door of crew chiefs and some terrible luck, she demonstrated that she could run on the lead lap at the Cup level and score top 10s in Nationwide.

    There's plenty of room for improvement, and the level of attention isn't equal to the level of performance, but things are heading in the right direction.

9. Matt Kenseth

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    Kenseth won his second career Daytona 500 in 2012, but the bigger story came when he announced he would leave Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season.

    Speculation centered on Joe Gibbs Racing for months, although Kenseth had contractual clauses stating that he couldn't announce the deal until September. Even as a lame duck driver, he still won two Chase races to make it to seventh in points.

8. Michael Waltrip

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    Nobody, perhaps not even Waltrip, expected Michael Waltrip Racing to be as competitive as it was in 2012.

    Full-timers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. both made it into the Chase. The third car, shared by Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, and Waltrip himself was a threat to win on any given weekend.

    That ride relaunched Vickers' career after a dismal 2011, while Bowyer's new team finished a surprising second in points.

7. Denny Hamlin

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    Losing the 2010 Chase was a significant blow to Hamlin's confidence in 2011.

    Joe Gibbs Racing eventually elected to replace crew chief Mike Ford with defending champion Darian Grubb this year.The results were especially strong in the regular season, which saw Hamlin win four races to earn the top Chase seed, on the way to a Chase victory at Loudon and a sixth place points finish.

6. Jimmie Johnson

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    Everybody expected a strong rebound from Johnson after the worst finish of his Sprint Cup career in 2011, and everybody was right on the money.

    Despite a significant penalty at Daytona temporarily setting Team 48 back in points, it wasn't too long before the five-time champion rose to the top, establishing himself once more as the championship favorite.

    Back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas proved that he was the man to beat, and though he only came home third in points, it was proof that Johnson hadn't missed a beat when his championship streak ended.

5. Paul Wolfe

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    In every generation of Sprint Cup crew chiefs, there is one mind atop the pit box that works well enough with its driver to create a legendary combination.

    Let's not jump to conclusions and call Wolfe and Brad Keselowski the next Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, but they've got the potential. Wolfe's knowledge of when to force the issue and when to listen to his driver's gut proved essential to their championship victory in 2012.

4. Clint Bowyer

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    Bowyer had some reservations about leaving Richard Childress Racing to drive for Michael Waltrip, who he once called "the worst driver in NASCAR" not too many years ago.

    In response, Waltrip built him a team that scored wins at Sonoma, Richmond, and Charlotte. Bowyer also broke out in press conferences as a zany but down-to-earth character.

    Though his wreck with Jeff Gordon at Phoenix ended his title hopes, Bowyer's angry sprint through pit road earned him a place in racing lore, while his second place finish in Sprint Cup points was a career best.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Junior Nation was fired up for most of 2012, as their driver broke a four-year winless drought and briefly led the points standings in the regular season.

    Earnhardt Jr. tasted victory at Michigan, the same place he had taken his last win in 2008, and led the points as late as August on the strength of so many top-10 finishes.

    Although his Chase bid was derailed by a lack of wins and concussion issues brought to light at Talladega, it was still Earnhardt Jr.'s best season at Hendrick Motorsports.

2. Roger Penske

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    It was a good year to be the Captain in NASCAR.

    Not only did Brad Keselowski win him his first Sprint Cup title since debuting as a car owner in 1972—a feat that past champions Rusty Wallace, Bobby Allison, and Kurt Busch could not accomplish—Penske set his team up to continue succeeding well into the future after announcing a return to Ford power in 2013.

    He also hired Joey Logano to pilot his second Sprint Cup entry, re-signed Sam Hornish Jr. for a Nationwide title bid, and snagged one of the best development drivers in the garage in Ryan Blaney for the future.

1. Brad Keselowski

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    Welcome to the big time, kid.

    At the age of 28, Keselowski's second career NASCAR title (he won the 2010 Nationwide championship, also with Penske Racing and crew chief Paul Wolfe) came after staring down five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, fellow breakout star Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, and eight other Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders.

    He revolutionized the sport's use of Twitter after giving fans live updates during the delay in the Daytona 500, struck the perfect balance between outspoken and professional, and established himself as an ambassador for the sport for years to come.

    For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.