CUP: 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Top Performances

No one saw this coming. No one.

Brad Keselowski won his first race in 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway, running a part-time schedule with single-car team Phoenix Racing. It was a nice story in a long season, one that ended with Jimmie Johnson winning the championship.

His second victory came in 2011 at Kansas Speedway while in his second full season with Penske Racing. That win moved him into 21st in points. Again, a feel-good story to weave into the year; one that culminates with Tony Stewart capturing his third title.

Big-picture speaking, Keselowski’s yearly career followed a similar story arch. Flashes of brilliance wherever he drove – be it the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series or his thus far brief tenure in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – all followed by a premier series title by two no-doubt-about-it NASCAR legends: Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

Now it’s Keselowski’s turn. Keselowski turned in a championship-worthy Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, besting both Chase-participants Johnson and Stewart. His average finish of 6.3 in the Chase was the exact same figure of Stewart’s last season. He won twice, including an opening salvo at Chicagoland Speedway that set the rest of the sport on high alert. So, for the first time since 2004, NASCAR has a premier series champion not named Johnson or Stewart.

From the first primetime Daytona 500 through Keselowski and owner Roger Penske’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, the 2012 season was filled with drama, intrigue and more than a few “Top Performances.” Here are a few of them, and as always, the choices are always up for welcome discussion.

Top Driver

Brad Keselowski: His series-high five wins notwithstanding, Keselowski’s clutch playoff performance may live as the most memorable chapter from his first championship. He tallied two wins and eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase. His worst finish was just 15th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway – the exact finish he needed to guarantee the championship. In the last 40 years, Keselowski became only the third driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title within his first three seasons, joining NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

Jimmie Johnson (Honorable Mention): A missing lug nut and a rear gear problem in the season finale destroyed any chance of a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for Johnson, one of the few blemishes in yet another brilliant season. Johnson led the series in Driver Rating with a 109.5 and tied for the series-high in wins (five), including his record-tying fourth victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Comeback Driver of the Year

Clint Bowyer: In 2011, Clint Bowyer eked out one win, at Talladega, and missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Even Bowyer admitted that his move to Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2012 season likely wouldn’t lead to immediate success. Wrong. Bowyer won three times this season, leapfrogging Jimmie Johnson in the season finale at Homestead to finish a career-best second in points. Those three wins all came on different layouts – road course (Sonoma), short track (Richmond), and intermediate (Charlotte). Along with teammate Martin Truex Jr., the duo gave MWR its first Chase berth since joining the series fulltime in 2007.

Greg Biffle (Honorable Mention): Greg Biffle, one of the more understated drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, slogged through an uncharacteristic 2011 season. He went winless, with only three top fives and 10 top 10s, missing the Chase en route to a 16th place points finish. This year? Call it a comeback, a big-time one. Biffle won twice, with 12 top fives and 21 top 10s, the latter tying a career-high. Holding the points lead after a series-high 14 races this season, he finished fifth in the final standings, his third top-five points finish and first since 2008.

Top Team

Hendrick Motorsports: Usually this spot is reserved for the championship team, but it’s impossible to ignore – and tribute – Hendrick Motorsports’ history-making and milestone-achieving season. HMS, with Jimmie Johnson at the wheel, captured its 200th victory in one of NASCAR’s crown jewels – the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It also won the Brickyard 400, also with Johnson. In all, HMS had a series-high 10 victories (Johnson, 5; Jeff Gordon, 2; Kasey Kahne, 2; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 1) and placed all four of its drivers in the Chase.

Penske Racing (Honorable Mention): With Brad Keselowski leading the improbable charge, owner Roger Penske won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in a NASCAR career that began in 1972. The No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge won five races, which was tied for the series high with the No. 48 driven by Jimmie Johnson and the No. 11 driven by Denny Hamlin. Penske’s other fulltime car – the No. 22 Dodge – chipped in a Coors Light Pole at Kansas Speedway by AJ Allmendinger, along with four top-10 finishes (three by Allmendinger; one by Sam Hornish Jr.)

Top Breakthrough Performance

Brad Keselowski: In 2011, Keselowski made the Chase as one of the two Wild Card contenders. This year, he made it as the fourth seed. There’s little reason to believe his meteoric rise to stardom won’t continue for years to come. Keselowski’s five wins this season came on some of the tougher tracks in the series, including Bristol, Dover and Talladega. But his ability to brush off pressure – and a five-time champion – during the Chase made him a champion, and a breakthrough performer.

Martin Truex Jr. (Honorable Mention): Truex’s “breakthrough” was a long time in the making. Since his first Chase appearance in 2007, from 2008-11, his average points finish was just 19.5. This season was a rebirth of sorts for the New Jersey native. He had seven top-10 finishes, which is one short of the last four seasons combined. His 19 top-10 finishes are as many as the last two years combined. And his season-ending Driver Rating of 95.6 ranked 11th – which was also his final points position.

Top Races

IRWIN Tools Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway (Aug. 25) – Bristol’s night race evolved into Bristol’s Night Race – capitalized – because of the emotional fender-bending, bump-and-running and temper-igniting qualities that blossom under the lights on the high banks. This race had all that, and more. The racing? Intense: Thirteen different drivers led a lap, three short of the all-time Bristol record. The action? Robust: There were 13 cautions, the most in the last 11 Bristol races. Denny Hamlin won the race, but two side acts stole the show. One, of course, is Tony Stewart’s helmet toss at Matt Kenseth’s No. 17. The other, an undercard to Stewart vs. Kenseth, was Danica Patrick’s finger point at Regan Smith after a wreck in her first Bristol race.

Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen, Watkins Glen International (Aug. 12) – Road course races have provided some of the most thrilling NASCAR moments, especially in recent years. This year’s Watkins Glen race was no different, especially on an epic last lap that will be remembered for years to come. Three prominent road course talents – Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose – battled for the lead on the last circuit, trading paint, running off course and doing literally anything to capture the checkered. Ambrose finally won the race, and earned it. According to NASCAR’s Loop Data, Ambrose and Keselowski traded the lead four times on the final lap, a rarity on road courses.