2012 Sprint Cup Series Disappointments Having Excellent 2013 Seasons

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2013

2012 Sprint Cup Series Disappointments Having Excellent 2013 Seasons

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    One of the beauties of every NASCAR season is watching drivers make comebacks after a terrible season the year before.

    Sometimes, it's just one driver who stands out. Other times, several drivers stand out. Such is the case in 2013, as five drivers have bounced back in a big way after a disappointing campaign in 2012.

    Let's look at those five drivers, how they've bounced back and what the rest of the season looks like for them.

Carl Edwards

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    There are just two words to describe how and why Carl Edwards has made perhaps the biggest comeback of any driver thus far in 2013: Jimmy Fennig.

    Since Fennig took over as Edwards' crew chief this season, Edwards has made a steady ride up the Sprint Cup standings, to the point where he's currently second, just 41 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson.

    Fennig is one of the most successful and respected crew chiefs in the garage, closing in on 30 years as one of the best in the NASCAR game. He led Kurt Busch to the first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2004 and helped Matt Kenseth win a combined six races (including the 2012 Daytona 500) and overall finishes of fourth and seventh in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, respectively.

    Last season was Edwards' worst ever in Sprint Cup racing, failing to win a race, recording just three top-five and 13 top-10 finishes and also missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. Edwards ultimately finished 15th, one season after tying for the championship with Tony Stewart, who wound up winning the title on a tiebreaker.

    Last season was also difficult for Edwards because he parted ways with longtime crew chief Bob Osborne due to the latter's health issues. But since hooking up with Fennig, Edwards has been on one of the best rolls of his career: In the first 10 races, he already has one win, five top-5 and six top-10 finishes.

    At the rate he's going with Fennig, don't be surprised if Edwards bounces all the way back to actually win the Sprint Cup championship this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    It's difficult to call 2012 a disappointing season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., per se. He won his first race since 2008, was consistent and strong during the first 26 races and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    But things indeed turned disappointing after the fourth race of the Chase, at Talladega, when Earnhardt suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the next two races. And with it, so went his chances to win the Chase, ultimately finishing last of the 12 Chase entrants.

    Earnhardt has once again shown strength and consistency in the first 10 races of 2013, with three top-five and six top-10 finishes. He's practically a win waiting to happen, and that could very easily happen this Saturday at Darlington or in three weeks in the Coca-Cola 600. Plus, he's been consistently in the top five in standings this season (currently third).

    Under the tutelage of crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has become the kind of driver many always thought he could be, and he's reaping the rewards of such. We would not be surprised that, barring any freak occurrence like what happened to him at Talladega last year, that Earnhardt potentially has the best chance he'll ever have to finally win his first Sprint Cup championship this season.

Kyle Busch

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    There's no denying that Kyle Busch had a terrible season in 2012. He won just one race and missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup, finishing 13th in the final standings.

    In addition, Busch scaled way back in his extracurricular racing in both the Nationwide and particularly the Camping World Truck Series, failing to win a race in either series in 2012.

    But Busch is back with a vengeance in 2013. He's already won two Cup races, as well as having five top-five finishes in the first 10 races. And he's dominated in the Nationwide Series, winning four of the seven races he's competed in.

    Many of the bad things that happened to Busch, particularly in 2011, are now distant history. There was the speeding ticket in North Carolina, where he was doing 127 mph in a 45 mph zone. There was the run-in with Kevin Harvick on pit road at Darlington.

    And then there was the biggest sin of all: punting Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall at Texas, leading to a suspension and heavy fine for the younger Busch brother—and almost costing him his primary sponsor, M&Ms, in the process.

    He learned some valuable lessons and while he'll likely never be as good as a choir boy, Busch is definitely a different driver in 2013, as his current spot of 10th place in the standings shows. The question is: Can he control his temper and keep up what he's started this season?

    Only time will tell, but so far, so good.

Jamie McMurray

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    One of the more pleasant surprises in 2013 has been the resurgence of Jamie McMurray. While he's 15th in the standings, McMurray is racing a lot better this season than he has in the last couple of seasons.

    While he hasn't reached victory lane yet—although it is likely to be just a matter of time before he does—McMurray has three top-10 finishes thus far and seems to be a lot more serious about his craft in 2013.

    McMurray has struggled in three of the last four seasons, finishing 22nd in 2009, 27th in 2011 and 21st in 2012. The only good season in the last four has been 2010, when he finished 14th and won three of the sport's biggest races: the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Bank of America 500.

    McMurray may be performing better because there may be pressure on him to do so in the final year of his contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (as is the case with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya). Both McMurray and Montoya have not given Chip Ganassi the kind of results he's used to.

    And while Ganassi has not issued any kind of public win-or-else ultimatum to either driver, it's a safe bet that there's at least been an inference that such is the case.

    At the rate he's going, we're not going to be surprised to see McMurray make the Chase this year.

Aric Almirola

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    In the truest sense of the word, Aric Almirola didn't exactly have a disappointing season per se in 2012.

    Sure, he finished 20th in the final standings, but that was a pretty lofty accomplishment in the whole big scheme of things, given that 2012 was Almirola's first full season in the Sprint Cup series. Prior to that, he had never started more than 12 races in any 36-race season from 2007 through 2011.

    In 2013, Almirola has been one of the most pleasant surprises. He's currently eighth in the Sprint Cup standings, including four top-10 finishes in the first 10 races.

    He's brought a significant amount of prestige back to the famous No. 43 Ford, and is likely to continue in that vein through the remainder of the season. Not only does he have a good chance right now to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he could wind up being the biggest comeback story of the season overall by season's end.

    That's saying a lot.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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