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CUP: Most Improved Of 2012

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In a highly competitive season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there were a handful of drivers who took big steps forward this year. Here are SPEED.com’s five most improved drivers.

1. CLINT BOWYER — Taking nothing away from champion Brad Keselowski, no one driver elevated his game more this season than Clint Bowyer, the crafty Kansan who ended the year second in the Sprint Cup points standings. And he did it with a new team — Michael Waltrip Racing — and a new crew chief in Brian Pattie. After winning just five Cup races in his first six years, all with Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer won three times in 2012 and scored his career best points finish.

In this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer won at Charlotte, was second at Homestead and posted four top fives and eight top 10s. His title drive fell short only because he got wrecked going for the win at Talladega in October and put into the wall by Jeff Gordon at Phoenix. Still, a huge season for Bowyer and his MWR crew.

2. BRAD KESELOWSKI — To win a championship in your third full season in the Cup Series is a remarkable achievement, but that’s exactly what Keselowski did, winning the championship by 39 points, the largest margin when adjusted for the various points systems used in the Chase era. Even more impressive is that Keselowski managed to give team owner Roger Penske his first title in 40 years of NASCAR competition.

Keselowski had a breakout season in 2011, when he won three races and finished fifth in points. This year, Keselowski showed the mettle of a champion, combining strategy and relentless consistency to win, despite not always having the fastest car. Over the final 29 races of the season, Keselowski finished worse than 15th just twice — an 18th-place run at the first Pocono race and a 30th at the second Bristol. Congrats to a worthy champion on a great season.

3. GREG BIFFLE — Although he didn’t finish as strongly as he would have liked, Greg Biffle made a huge leap forward this season, finishing fifth in points after ending 2011 mired in 16th place. Biffle put his No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in victory lane twice this season, posting 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Last year, by comparison, Biffle went winless with three top fives and 10 top 10s.

Biffle began 2012 on a high note, finishing third in the Daytona 500 and then again at Phoenix and Las Vegas. All told, he led the Sprint Cup points standings after 14 of the first 25 races. Biffle’s Chase got off to a poor start with three consecutive finishes outside the top 10, but he came on as the Chase went on, coming home 10th at Martinsville and Texas, seventh at Phoenix and fifth at Homestead.

4. KASEY KAHNE — After finishing 14th in points with Red Bull in 2011, big things were expected of Kahne in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. And, indeed, the popular driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet went on to finish a career-high fourth in points. What was most remarkable was how he got there. Kahne’s first six races with Hendrick were godawful: 29th in the Daytona 500, then 34th at Phoenix, 19th at Vegas, 37th at Bristol, 14th at Auto Club Speedway and 38th at Martinsville.

But Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis never panicked. In the next five races, Kahne never finished worse than eighth. Finally, at the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Kahne scored his first race victory with Hendrick, following it up with a win in New Hampshire seven races later. That got him into the Chase, where Kahne posted six finishes of eighth or better to end the year on a high note.

5. DALE EARNHARDT JR. — It might sound odd to say that the same driver who finished seventh in points in 2011 and fell to 12th in points this year belongs on a most-improved list, but it’s true. Last year, Earnhardt was rarely competitive, posting only four top fives and 12 top 10s in 36 races. In 2012, he had one victory, his first since 2008, 10 top fives and 20 top 10s, despite missing two races with concussions.

More importantly, perhaps, Earnhardt seemed like a new man, no longer down and disappointed as he had been so often in the prior two or three seasons. Earnhardt’s success energized him, as did the enthusiasm of crew chief Steve Letarte. Earnhardt might just make that long-awaited championship run in 2014.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.