NASCAR: The 10 Best and Worst Moments of the 2012 Sprint Cup Season

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2012

NASCAR: The 10 Best and Worst Moments of the 2012 Sprint Cup Season

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    Trying to pick the best and worst moments over the course of a 36-race season can be pretty difficult.

    And no matter what 10 moments you narrow things down to—5 best and 5 worst—someone is invariably going to disagree or come up with another choice or idea.

    When it came to choose our list of the 10 Best and Worst Moments of the 2012 NASCAR Season, we had more than enough examples to choose from, but invariably some choices were ultimately left off.

    Particularly for worst moments, we could have mentioned—but didn't—Jimmy Johnson's wreck in the fall race at Phoenix, Johnson's drivetrain failure at Homestead that ended his championship hopes, Kyle Busch's terrible season and much more.

    Likewise, we could have mentioned any number of other feel good stories and choices, but we feel we chose the five best and most memorable in this exercise.

    And speaking of choices, the 10 we ultimately came up with are not in any particular order or ranking.

    So, you may agree or disagree with our choices. That's fine. The most important thing is we got you thinking.

    And if you indeed disagree with some of our choices, we'd love to hear your thoughts. Remember, there's no right or wrong answers here, just some of the 10 Best and Worst Moments of the 2012 NASCAR Season.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Best Moment: Brad Keselowski Wins Sprint Cup Championship at Homestead

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    This was the biggest story of the year, the blue-collar kid from suburban Detroit, in only his third full season of Sprint Cup competition, racing for one of the most legendary team owners in motorsports.

    As unlikely a choice he may have been at the beginning of the season, Brad Keselowski proved he, the team owner and the rest of Penske Racing were the best of the best in 2012.

    And the best moment of all was when Keselowski climbed out of his car and ascended to the podium to accept his championship trophy, a winner's check for more than five million, all the beer he could drink in celebration (Miller Lite, of course), and the realization that this very moment when he was crowned Sprint Cup champ, a lifelong dream had finally come true.

Best Moment: Rick Hendrick's 200th Sprint Cup Win as a Team Owner

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    If you were to draw a blueprint on how to build the best organization in NASCAR, go over to Rick Hendrick Motorsports, just a stone's throw from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    From its very modest beginnings, Hendrick Motorsports has grown into an organization of over 500 employees, 10 Sprint Cup championships and a reputation for being the best of the best.

    It was in May at Darlington that "the boss man," as Jimmie Johnson likes to call Hendrick, received one of the greatest honors of his career.

    Johnson, who had already given Hendrick five Cup championships, went on to win the Southern 500 on a warm Saturday evening at one of the most difficult race tracks in the sport.

    When Johnson crossed the finish line, he not only celebrated victory, he gave a special gift to someone who has given Johnson so much over the course of his career:

    "This one's for Mr. H," Johnson said.

    Of all the race wins in 2012, few would be as emotional and meaningful as when Johnson set another milestone in the ever-continuing story of racing excellence known as Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports.

Best Moment: Dale Earnhardt Breaks 143-Race Winless Streak

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    Who says history can't repeat itself?

    It did just that at Michigan International Speedway in June when Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally broke the longest winless streak of his racing career, ending a 143-race dry spell.

    And in almost fitting irony, Earnhardt reached victory lane in the same place he had last won four years earlier, which snapped a 76-race winless streak—the longest of Junior's career before then.

    Of course, Junior was ecstatic, as was his loyal fan base who, not to change the subject, but recently voted him NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the 10th year in a row.

    That win at Michigan may have had something to do with it, but let's hope that Junior and his fans don't have to wait another 143 races before he finds victory lane once again, and maybe even at another race track this time. That would be nice.

Best Moment: Matt Kenseth's Win in the Daytona 500

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    Matt Kenseth, who started his final season at Roush Fenway Racing by winning his second Daytona 500, did so in what will likely go down as one of the most unusual runnings of the Great American Race in NASCAR history.

    First off, the race was held on a Monday, due to it being rained out on its scheduled Sunday date.

    Then, because rain continued earlier in the day, the race was run at night, making the first Daytona 500 to ever be run completely under the lights and perhaps equally as important, in prime time for the first time ever, as well.

    That race also brought about two other of the season's biggest moments—one best, one worst.

    We'll get to the best one next, and the worst one in a few more slides.

Best Moment: Brad Keselowski's Great Twitter Adventure

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    One of this season's best moments indeed came on the racing surface of the legendary Daytona International Speedway, but it didn't come due to great racing.

    In fact, when it happened, cars were parked under a red flag race stoppage that lasted over an hour due to Juan Pablo Montoya crashing into a track jet dryer (more of that to come in a moment).

    But what kind of topped off what was one of the craziest and yet most memorable Daytona 500s in history, was when Keselowski pulled out his cell phone from his firesuit, began taking pictures of Montoya's wreck and resulting massive fire, and then began to use Twitter to give his ever-growing fan base a virtual play-by-play of what was happening on the track, right from the comfort of his driver's cockpit.

    What's more, when Fox TV picked up on his antics, Keselowski watched his Twitter following soar by more than 100,000 new followers, all in just over an hour.

    NASCAR loved the social interaction and great publicity that resulted, eventually making itself the first pro-sports league to have a formal working partnership with the folks at Twitter.

    But there was an ironic twist 34 races later, when under similar red flag circumstances at Phoenix in the second-to-last race of the season, Keselowski was fined $25,000 for having a so-called unapproved electronic device within his race car, namely his cell phone again, because he could theoretically gain an unfair competitive advantage.

    That the cars were parked and shut off at the time didn't matter to NASCAR officials who penalized Keselowski.

    You almost have to wonder what's next: Will NASCAR start frisking drivers next season to make sure they're not hiding their cell phone somewhere in their firesuit?

Worst Moment: Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer Tangle at Phoenix

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    This was one of the ugliest overall incidents that the sport has seen in years. First, after a season-long history of constant run-ins with Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon had enough late in the second-to-last race of the season at Phoenix.

    After being punted into the wall by Bowyer a lap earlier, Gordon waited like a lion ready to pounce on its prey and then intentionally wrecked Bowyer, ending his day and effectively ending any mathematical chances he had of still winning the Sprint Cup championship.

    In an ironic twist, Bowyer ultimately wound up finishing second in the Sprint Cup standings behind Brad Keselowski.

    Even more ironic is that Gordon won the final race at Homestead a week earlier and Bowyer finished second, and there was no retaliation or revenge from either driver.

    Gordon was penalized and fined $100,000 for the Phoenix incident. However, that most significant moment of this whole incident was the ugly aftershot, when Bowyer's crew charged Gordon on pit road, and while they never reached him, it sparked one of the biggest brawls NASCAR has seen in a long time with members of Gordon's pit crew.

    And let's not forget Bowyer, after climbing out of his race car and running down pit road and through the garage area in an effort to get to Gordon, who was long gone by that point.

    While the wreck and resulting brawl between the two crews was huge news both in and out of the sport, it was also an embarrassing black eye to a sanctioning body who does not encourage violence or retaliation.

    And even though the season is now over, don't be surprised if Gordon and Bowyer pick up their little rivalry right from the get-go in the season-opening Daytona 500 in mid-February.

Worst Moment: Juan Pablo Montoya Plows into Jet Dryer in Daytona 500

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    There has been a lot of criticism about Juan Pablo Montoya's talent as a NASCAR driver, but we guarantee he'll forever be remembered in the sport's annals for one of the most bizarre moments the sport has ever seen.

    It was during the rain-rescheduled Daytona 500 that Montoya inexplicably lost control of his Target Chevrolet coming off pit road—he wasn't even up to full speed, either—and plowed head-on into a jet dryer truck which was attempting to dry up moisture that was seeping from the track.

    The impact sparked a huge fireball and destroyed the truck. Fortunately, Montoya and the driver of the jet dryer were uninjured.

    If there was ever an incident that set the tone for other worst moments of the 2012 season, this one was unquestionably it.

Worst Moment: A.J. Allmendinger Suspension

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    A.J. Allmendinger had become one of the more popular and rising stars in the Sprint Cup Series until his world came crashing down in early July when he failed a routine NASCAR-sanctioned drug test.

    While Allmendinger insisted he was not a drug user and that the positive result was an aberration from a medication that he took just one time, a second positive result from another sample ultimately proved damning.

    Allmendinger was subsequently permanently suspended until he completed a drug treatment plan (which he did, nearly three months later), but the real damage was losing his ride with Penske Racing.

    Allmendinger was reinstated to race late in the season, but his future is cloudy. Will he return to NASCAR in 2013? Rumors abound that he may return to his open-wheel racing roots and return to the IndyCar Series circuit.

    There's likely no chance of ever returning to the Penske camp, particularly since Joey Logano has permanently replaced Allmendinger in the No. 22 Ford (formerly Dodge).

Worst Moment: Tony Stewart Causes Huge Wreck at Talladega

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    Tony Stewart is one of the best drivers in Sprint Cup competition. With three championships and nearly 50 race wins, you'd think he would consider the results of potential actions before he does them. However, such was not the case in the fall race at Talladega.

    As he was trying to protect a faltering lead in the closing laps of the restrictor-plate race, Stewart pulled in front of a steamrolling Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears tandem, rather than let them get by him.

    That's right, Stewart blocked the two cars to try and keep his lead. Unfortunately, Stewart's action backfired in a big way. With a full head of steam, Waltrip and Mears had nowhere to go and ultimately crashed into Stewart, triggering a massive 20-plus car wreck that, even by typical Talladega "big-one" standards, was practically in a class by itself.

    All told, Stewart's attempt to "block" caused what some estimated to be three million in damages to over 20 cars, destroying most of them in the wake of his move. To his credit, however, Stewart manned up and admitted he was at fault. Still, that's little consolation to drivers who not only had their cars wrecked, but also their chances in the remainder of the Chase wrecked as well

    And if that wasn't bad enough, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion as a result of the wreck, the second concussion he had suffered in less than two months—the first came while testing at Kansas Speedway in late August.

    As a result, Earnhardt was forced to miss not only the first Cup race of his career, but two in a row so that he could recover from getting his bell rung in the aftermath of the Stewart-led wreck.

Worst Moment: Carl Edwards Failing to Make the Chase

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    Okay, this last entry isn't exactly about one particular worst moment, but rather a season-long episode of one bad moment after another, ultimately leading to Carl Edwards not only failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but also extending his current winless streak to 69 races, dating back to early 2011.

    That's right, the same Edwards who lost the 2011 Sprint Cup championship by a mere one point to Tony Stewart, couldn't find victory lane even if he had a map, GPS and NORAD tracking.

    To make matters worse, Edwards' longtime and trusted crew chief, Bob Osborne, was forced to step off the pit box due to mysterious health reasons.

    Edwards had one bad race after another and eventually got to a point where he couldn't wait for 2012 to end.

    Mercifully, it finally did.

    But there's optimism for 2013, as veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig will call the strategy for Edwards upon the No. 99 Ford's pit box on pit road.

    If Edwards can mimic what now-former teammate Matt Kenseth did and win the season-opening Daytona 500, it could definitely set the tone for a much more successful season in 2013, and it would also help people forget about this past season's innumerable failures and shortcomings.