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CUP: Season In Review – A New Champion

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It was the year of Bad Brad.

Despite driving for a car manufacturer on the way out, despite a teammate situation that devolved into a major nuisance, despite pressure from Five-Time himself, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski raced past the doubters and won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.

He did it with flair and pizzazz, winning five times and roaring back from early-season troubles to become a force in the Chase. He was the central figure in a remarkable Sprint Cup season that stretched from primetime racing and a jet-dryer explosion at Daytona to tense racing over the closing events of the season at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

At its end, Keselowski stood atop the sport, a first-time champion in only his third full-time season at the Sprint Cup level, ending a seven-year stretch in which the title had been held by either Tony Stewart or Johnson.

Keselowski signaled his rise in 2011, winning three times for Penske Racing and finishing a solid fifth in points after finishing 25th in the standings in 2010, his first year at Penske.

He and crew chief Paul Wolfe proved matches for the challenge this year, outrunning the potent and proven pair of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus over the final weeks of the season to win the title by 39 points. With a last-race charge, Clint Bowyer finished second in points. Johnson was third, 40 back. Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle rounded out the top five.

The season began in the unlikeliest of fashions, with wet weather postponing the Daytona 500 to the next day for the first time in the event’s history. More weather on the new race day pushed the race to nighttime hours, putting the 500 in front of a primetime television audience, which got much more than it might have anticipated.

Although the race was entertaining and the winner a familiar face – Matt Kenseth, the takeaway from the evening and the producer of water-cooler chatter the next day was Juan Pablo Montoya. Returning his car to speed after a caution-flag pit stop, Montoya lost control on the backstretch and slammed into a jet-dryer working near the third turn. The explosion lit up the Daytona night sky and spread fire and fuel across the track. Both Montoya and the truck driver escaped without injury, but the race was delayed two hours for cleanup operations – involving, of all things, Tide detergent.

The delay put Keselowski on the national stage early. A devoted Twitter user, he tweeted photos from the backstretch during the delay, sparking conversations that led to NASCAR banning cell phones from race cars.

Keselowski scored his first win of the season three races later at Bristol, but Roush Fenway Racing drivers Greg Biffle and Kenseth were the stars at the top of the point standings for virtually all of the season’s first half. Biffle led for 11 straight weeks – from race three at Las Vegas through race 13 at Dover, then Kenseth, driving for Roush Fenway for the final season, took over for first straight.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ended a puzzling winless streak by scoring in mid-June at Michigan, was atop the points for weeks 20 and 21, but his season hit a big pothole later when he suffered a concussion in a crash at Talladega, sidelining him for two weeks and dropping him to 12th in the final point standings.

When the regular season ended in early September at Richmond, Denny Hamlin, because of his four seasonal wins, was seeded at the top of the point standings for the start of the Chase. But Keselowski, Johnson and Stewart were only three points back.

Keselowski staked his claim early, winning the Chase opener at Chicago and repeating two weeks later at Dover. He led the points until Johnson took over with back-to-back victories at Martinsville and Texas – the Texas win scored only after some exciting late-race jousting with Keselowski.

But Johnson’s season darkened the next week at Phoenix when a blown tire sent him into the wall and on the way to a 32nd-place finish.

Johnson rallied to challenge in the season finale at Homestead, but a rare pit-road miscue and rear-gear problems ended his hopes, and a 15th-place finish earned Keselowski the championship with relative ease.

In addition to claiming the title for the first time, Keselowski gave team owner Roger Penske, a long-time traveler of NASCAR roads, his first Sprint Cup championship.

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.