Sprint Cup’s top 10 drivers will parade across the stage at the season-ending awards show Friday night with much to celebrate – none more, of course, than surprise champion Brad Keselowski.
Although Keselowski was considered a rising star entering the season, thanks to a sparkling 2011 in which he scored three wins and finished fifth in points despite a nasty foot injury, few were willing to race out on a limb and predict a championship for him.
But it happened, and in style. At Chase’s end, no one was any closer to him than 39 points – the deficit of second-place Clint Bowyer, who, by the way, scored a surprise of his own by finishing in high cotton.
Here’s a look at Friday night’s spotlighted top 10 and how their seasons went as compared to what might have been expected:
1. Brad Keselowski – Exceeded expectations. A first championship, paving the way for what should be several more. Five victories – no one had more. He has arrived.
2. Clint Bowyer – Exceeded expectations. Three times a winner, Bowyer was the ace card for Michael Waltrip Racing, a team that pulled itself from the mud of mediocrity to make some big noise. Second place a high-water mark for a driver who took a big chance in driving away from Richard Childress Racing.
3. Jimmie Johnson – Didn’t meet expectations. The 48 team has set the bar so ridiculously high with its raft of successes that any season falling short of a championship must be considered lacking. Johnson lost the draft in the final two races, finishing 32nd at Phoenix and 36th at Homestead.
4. Kasey Kahne – Exceeded expectations. Kahne and his team wanted more, of course, but a fourth-place finish, two wins and a ranking as the No. 2 Hendrick Motorsports team in Kahne’s first year in the No. 5 equal a good season. More will be expected next year.
5. Greg Biffle – Didn’t meet expectations. Biffle set them high himself prior to the Chase, boldly stating that his team would be one to be reckoned with come Homestead. After a superlative regular season in which he led the points for much of the way, Biffle stumbled in the Chase, scoring no wins and only two top fives.
6. Denny Hamlin – Didn’t meet expectations. Hamlin is dancing dangerously along the precipice of becoming that guy who “almost” reaches the finish line but doesn’t. He started the Chase in first in points based on four regular-season victories but couldn’t hold the momentum.
7. Matt Kenseth – Met expectations. It was a hot and cold year for Kenseth, as he won the Daytona 500 and two other races (both in the Chase) but couldn’t challenge for the championship. Some observers expected less from him because of his lame-duck status at Roush Fenway Racing.
8. Kevin Harvick – Didn’t meet expectations. “Happy” wasn’t happy most of the year. Didn’t win until the 35th race of the year and once again didn’t get within striking distance of an elusive first championship.
9. Tony Stewart – Didn’t meet expectations. Won the championship last season with crew chief Darian Grubb. Sent Grubb packing and this year finished ninth in points. Five wins in last year’s Chase; none in this one.
10. Jeff Gordon – Didn’t meet expectations. Gordon’s season was filled with coulda-shoulda-woulda’s. His year pockmarked by troubles of nearly every sort, including a nasty late-season brouhaha with Bowyer, Gordon got some consolation with a win in the season finale at Homestead.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.