It started with a photo snapped from a cellular phone, and ended with a tipsy celebration broadcast on live television. Those two indelible media moments bookended the season of Brad Keselowski, whose actions and words outside of the race car made as much of an impact as the Sprint Cup championship he earned behind the wheel.
The photo of the burning jet dryer, snapped during a red flag in the Daytona 500, from a phone he had slipped into his firesuit pocket before climbing into the car. Another tweet from inside the vehicle, this one much later in the season, that earned him a fine from NASCAR. Strong words against retaliation on the race track. A beer-guzzling championship celebration, and a buzzed SportsCenter interview that quickly went viral. A speech during the awards ceremony that showed maturity, humility and perspective, and ended with a call for unity.
In and of itself, it might have been enough to make the Penske Racing driver the story of the 2012 season in NASCAR. But couple all that with what unfolded on the race track -- the five wins, the fuel strategies, the fender-banging, a Chase run that no one could match, a long-awaited first premier-series title for the man they call the Captain -- and there is no doubt. This was the year of Brad.
No question, he earned it on the track. But even when he was outside the No. 2 car, he was impossible to ignore. Outspoken and accessible, a driver who pushed the limits of social media in NASCAR, Keselowski earned renown for who he was as much as what he achieved.
"I don't think Brad's learned to be cautious yet, and I hope it won't bite him like it has some drivers, but it's refreshing," three-time champion Tony Stewart said. "It's nice to see someone who speaks from the heart and isn't guarded, and that's the way all of us should be."
"You've got to be who you are and let that shine, ands I think that's what I see in him," added four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "It doesn't seem like too much is going to change in him, at least not what I've seen so far. So I don't anticipate it happening."
No wonder, then, so many see so much potential in this 28-year-old, over and above what he does on the race track. "I think he's going to drive the sport further," car owner Roger Penske said. A lot to heap on a young first-time champion, to be sure, but Keselowski seems to embrace it. But he fully understands it starts behind the wheel -- which is why to the driver, despite all those unforgettable media moments that defined his 2012 campaign, the best parts involved reaching Victory Lane.
"The championship is a reflection of the year, but a race win is a reflection of a weekend," Keselowski said. "So it's a much narrower view, but a very important view. So the wins themselves, to me, mean the most."
And with that, the rest of the top 10 stories of 2012:
2. Earnhardt's resurgence.He may have been an afterthought by the time Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson dueled for the title at Homestead, but there were times this season when Earnhardt burned brighter than anyone else. His return to championship relevance was punctuated by an end to his 143-race winless streak, and a high ranking in points for much of the year. Wrecks and concussions ultimately derailed his title run, but for the first time in a long time NASCAR's most popular driver was a viable candidate for NASCAR's biggest prize.
3. AJ's release and return.It felt as if we had seen the last of AJ Allmendinger when he failed a random drug screening at Kentucky in July, and then lost his ride at Penske Racing. And in truth, he didn't help himself with the way he and his advisors handled the situation at first. But a humbled, contrite, and appreciative Allmendinger completed NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, made a few starts with Phoenix Racing, and put himself in play for an open seat in 2013. In the process, he proved that one positive test doesn't have to mean the end of a career.
4. The rise of MWR.Is this really the same Michael Waltrip Racing that barely survived its first season? Indeed it is. Thanks to an upgrade in personnel and an improved way of building race cars, MWR emerged as a legitimate title contender in 2013. Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. made the Chase, and the No. 55 car might have done the same had it had the same driver all year. Although Truex faded some toward the end, all three cars were good all season long. This wasn't a fluke -- guys like competition director Scott Miller, crew chief Brian Pattie and veteran Mark Martin know what they're doing, and they've changed the culture of an organization that almost didn't make it to Year 2.
5. Five-Time returns to form.No one thought Jimmie Johnson would stay down for long. After a career-worst sixth-place finish in 2011 brought on by cars that simply didn't have enough speed, the man they call "Five-Time" roared back to life with a season that nearly netted championship No. 6. He won five races, held the points lead with two events remaining, and might have won much more had his car not ended up behind the wall in each of his last two starts. The Sprint Cup series moves to a new vehicle next season, and no team has proven better at adaptation than the No. 48. Watch out.
6. Carl and Kyle get Chased out.One year ago, Carl Edwards led the championship race entering the final race of the season, and Kyle Busch won four times. This season, neither qualified for the Chase. Edwards remained on the cusp on playoff contention all season long, but only once came close to recording the victory he needed to have, and the 2011 runner-up was but a footnote by the end. Busch led a wild-card berth slip away on the last day of the regular season, and although he was strong in the final 10 races, it was all just a warm-up for 2013. Better luck next year, boys.
7. Kenseth moves on.Among "silly season" transactions, the most seismic of them all involved a former champion and reigning Daytona 500 winner who surprisingly left the only team he'd ever known. No one really knows for sure why Matt Kenseth left Roush Fenway -- at one point he seemed ready to retire there, the next he was headed out the door. But despite his Chase standing, he finished strong, winning races to burnish his legacy with a program that was Kenseth's as much as anyone else's. Now it's off to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he promises to bring leadership and accountability to a team that could use a little more of both.
8. Danica's growing pains.She started the season talking about contending for the Nationwide title, which quickly seemed more dream than reality. She crashed three times in Speedweeks, one of them a harrowing head-on plunge into the wall. Danica Patrick's stepping-stone NASCAR season was often a trying one, though she ended with a few good runs and the record for highest points finish by a woman in a national division. Even amid the low points, there was always just enough there to make you think she could do it. Of course, now she'll have to do it in the big leagues.
9. Fire and rain at Daytona.Where was James Taylor when you needed him? The 2012 edition of the Great American Race was memorable for a mixed bag of reasons, most notably Juan Montoya losing control of his car under caution and crashing into a jet dryer, igniting a fireball that thankfully injured no one, but still necessitated a long cleanup during which Keselowski's tweets and Tide detergent went viral. This after the race was postponed by rain for the first time, turning it into a Monday night spectacular. And at the end there was Dale Jr., trying to hunt down Kenseth, but running out of time. Try and top all that, 2013.
10. Kurt Busch's comeback.The elder Busch brother began 2012 out of a ride after a testy separation from Penske Racing. Soon afterward he struck a deal to drive for Phoenix Racing, and the 2004 champion went from winning races and contending for Chase berths to squeezing all he could out of an operation that was undermanned and unsponsored. The results were sometimes disastrous (crash at Darlington), a few times spectacular (third place at Sonoma) and always interesting to watch. But Busch persevered, moved up to a better ride at Furniture Row, and closing the season with a team first -- three straight top-10s.
1. Clint Bowyer.OK, we all knew the guy was good. But this good? Walking into a brand-new team, pairing with a new crew chief, and immediately contending for the Sprint Cup championship? Yes, Clint is that good. Everyone knew his addition would help raise the competitive profile of Michael Waltrip Racing. But winning three times and lingering in the title picture until only one race remained? That was above and beyond, and it portends bigger things for both the driver and the organization in 2013. Some days, Richard Childress has to shake his head over what he let get away.
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2. Ryan Blaney.Hey, he's Dave Blaney's son, so there was no doubt that he could drive. But becoming the youngest winner in the history of the Camping World Truck Series was something else entirely. That's what the then-18-year-old did at Iowa Speedway, the crowning moment of a season in which the younger Blaney was fast and competitive in everything he drove at NASCAR's national level. Whether it was in Keselowski's truck or a Penske Nationwide car, he finished in the top 10 with a regularity that belied his age. Just imagine what the kid might be capable of when he grows up.
3. Michael Annett.Marcos Ambrose may have won the Sprint Cup road race at Watkins Glen International, but the Richard Petty Motorsports driver who had the best season was probably the unassuming Annett, who quietly finished right behind the primary title contenders on the Nationwide tour. The native Iowan enjoyed his best year, posting the first top-fives of his career, highlighted by third-place runs at Daytona and Dover. Now, whether he can take the next step and move into the title mix is yet to be seen. But with so many top-10s and so few DNFs, the groundwork is certainly there for a driver better than he probably gets credit for.
1. Richard Childress Racing.RCR has been known for its peaks and valleys in recent seasons, and in 2012 the six-time championship team suffered through another trough. One win. One car in the Chase. More personnel shuffles in the competition department and among crew chiefs. A team with Kevin Harvick behind the wheel is certainly capable of more, but the driver can only do so much when the problems are organization-wide. In Nationwide and Trucks, RCR had a fantastic year. But although Harvick made the playoff and won a race, and Paul Menard continued to show quiet improvement, the Sprint Cup campaign was uneven at best. This is a proud team that aims to compete against Hendrick and Roush, and in 2012 it wasn't close.
2. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.Unfortunately for Chip Ganassi, his organization is becoming a fixture in this section. A year of sweeping change for the two-car organization produced decidedly mediocre results, with Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya lingering well down the standings. EGR shuffled crew chiefs, it shuffled executives, its drivers spoke often about how much they liked the new, positive vibe in the shop. And yet, nothing changed. Is Ganassi too fixated on IndyCar? Is Montoya too comfortable? Who knows. But when your season highlight is hitting a jet dryer, something isn't right.
3. Adieu, Montreal.Fans and drivers alike loved the annual Nationwide race on the Canadian road course, but after six years the event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve simply proved too unwieldy. No question, it annually produced some of the craziest action of the Nationwide season, and the 2012 edition was no exception. But promoter demands became unrealistic, logistics became a hassle, and the event is off the schedule for 2013. Everyone hated to see it go, even though it seemed like an inevitability. But the Montreal experience was wonderful while it lasted, and NASCAR hasn't closed the door on one day going back.
Driver of the Year: Brad Keselowski.Don't let all the tweets and headline-grabbing comments distract you from what the 2012 champion did on the race track. From midsummer on Keselowski was simply lights-out, finishing outside of the top 11 just twice after his victory at Kentucky. One of those was in the finale at Homestead, where the No. 2 team didn't have its best race. No matter -- by that time, it was plenty good enough.
Runner-up: Clint Bowyer.New team, new manufacturer, new crew chief, new owner. None of that mattered to Bowyer, who came completely into his own in his first year with a Michael Waltrip Racing outfit that took a large step toward the elite. He posted career-bests in wins, top-fives, and top-10s. Remove crashes at Talladega and Phoenix, and the series runner-up might have won the title. Regardless, he set himself up for many more runs at the crown in the seasons to come.
Honorable mention: Matt Kenseth.Yes, he finished seventh in final points, and yes, he had three miserable runs to open the Chase that all but ended his hopes in the playoff. But in a season where he had every reason to quit, Kenseth won three times -- among them the Daytona 500 -- lingered at or near the top of the standings almost the entire regular season, and rebounded with a pair of victories in the Chase. Not a bad way to say goodbye to his mates at Roush Fenway, and head off to his new ride with Joe Gibbs.
Crew Chief of the Year: Paul Wolfe.Brad Keselowski is a heck of a driver, no doubt about that. But to a degree his championship this season was engineered from atop the pit box, by a crew chief whose knack for making the right strategy calls had the competition on their heels. Although not every plan worked, calls like those at Dover, Kentucky and Chicago proved that the No. 2 team could do more than just go fast. His moves got into the heads of his competition, and helped foster that go-big-or-go-home mentality under which Keselowski thrived.
Runner-up: Bran Pattie.Unemployed after being released from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing last fall, MWR picked Pattie off the scrap heap and found a crew chief who fit brilliantly with new driver Clint Bowyer. A savvy signal-caller who tailors car setups to his driver, Pattie not only made the No. 15 car go fast, but along with spotter Brett Griffin also engineered a way to keep the notoriously high-strung Bowyer focused in the car. The result was three wins and a legitimate title run, a first for the Waltrip shop.
Honorable mention: Rodney Childers.MWR's resident juggler, Childers oversaw a No. 55 car that featured three drivers -- Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, and Waltrip -- over the course of the season, and never missed a beat. Regardless of who was behind the wheel, the vehicle was fast. Childers always downplayed the difficulty, making the shuffle look easier than it was. He'll handle the same task next season, though you have to wonder -- what might Childers and that team be capable of if they had the same driver all season long? Maybe in 2014, we'll find out.
Car Owner of the Year: Michael Waltrip.He may make funny commercials, but his race team is no joke. Thanks to an influx of cash from Rob Kauffman and the cool leadership of competition director Scott Miller, MWR eclipsed Joe Gibbs Racing as the best team in the Toyota fleet. No small feat, given all those titles over at Coach's place. But Martin Truex was solid all year long, Clint Bowyer was a legitimate championship threat, and the No. 55 car was good regardless of who was in it. Waltrip suffered through some dark days, and could have closed up shop, but he didn't. His reward is an organization set to contend for years to come.
Runner-up: Roger Penske.The Captain's first start at NASCAR's highest level was at Riverside, Calif., in 1972, when he fielded a car for Mark Donahue. It took him 40 years to win his first championship, enduring plenty of close calls along the way. Had he walked away and devoted all his efforts to open-wheel racing, where his cars were more successful, everyone would have understood. But Penske knew winning in NASCAR was the validation, so he kept at it. His team has made some curious personnel decisions at times, but matching Keselowski and that flagship No. 2 car wasn't one of them.
Honorable mention: Rick Hendrick.Seasons come and go, but the man in the pressed white shirt and the ball cap with the slanted H on the front continues to set the standard for NASCAR team ownership. Hendrick got all four of his drivers into the Chase, something that hasn't been done since Roush squeezed five in prior to the implementation of the car cap. Jimmie Johnson is back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is rejuvenated, Kasey Kahne is coming on, Jeff Gordon defies the flecks of gray in his hair. An 11th title next year? No one would bet against it.
Race of the Year: Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen, Watkins Glen International, Aug. 12.Goodness, who can forget that final lap? It lingers so vividly in the memory, it's as if it happened yesterday -- Keselowski nosing into Kyle Busch, Busch falling out of the lead in a race he had to have to make the Chase, Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose trading door-panel shots over a rollicking final few turns, and the Australian coming out on top. It was riveting stuff, and more evidence that road courses rule.
Runner-up: AdvoCare 500, Phoenix International Raceway, Nov. 11.Where to begin? Johnson melting a bead trying to get all he could out of a mediocre race car, and crashing his championship hopes? Gordon and Bowyer crashing one another on the track? Seemingly half the field crashing on the final lap of Kevin Harvick's unlikely victory, or the No. 15 and 24 teams clashing in the garage area? It was a rough-and-tumble day in the desert, with a sellout crowd on hand to see it all unfold.
Honorable mention: Irwin Tools Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway, Aug. 25.All that talk of grinding the top groove of the track, of removing the progressive banking, of putting the bite back in Bristol. None of it compared to the action, most notably a run-in between two drivers with four titles between them, and Tony Stewart's thrown helmet serving as an exclamation point. It was one of those wild nights that made Bristol famous, back to remind us all that this great half-mile race track never really left.
Comeback of the Year: Denny Hamlin.So much for that hangover that followed his near-miss championship campaign of 2010. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver returned to the ranks of NASCAR's elite this season, winning five times and looking very much like the favorite for the tile during the early stages of the Chase. But mechanical problems that have become too typical at JGR, this time an electrical switch, undid his playoff at Martinsville. No matter -- he and crew chief Darian Grubb promise to be a powerhouse combo for years to come.
Runner-up: Greg Biffle.The Roush Fenway driver followed up one of his worst Sprint Cup seasons with a campaign in which he was the class of the field for much of the year. Biffle fell out of title contention early in the Chase, but during the first 26 races, he was a rock: Over that time he notched 15 top-10 finishes and led the points for 14 weeks. The series leader before the Chase, Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia clearly hit on something, building a springboard for what should be a better 2013.
Honorable mention: Sam Hornish Jr.The former Indianapolis 500 champion continues to rebuild his NASCAR career, enjoying a breakout season on the Nationwide tour in which he was in title contention for much of the season. No, he didn't get the No. 22 Sprint Cup ride at Penske for 2013. But after competing part-time last year, this is a guy who was solid all year in the Nationwide ranks, and filled in admirably when called upon after AJ Allmendinger's suspension. He keeps moving in this direction, he'll get back up there soon enough.
Quote of the Year:"I'm going to run over him every him every chance I've got from now 'til the end of the year. Every chance I've got." -- Tony Stewart, after throwing his helmet at Matt Kenseth during the Bristol night race on Aug 25.
Runner-up:"If this was what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it, let me put it to you like that. If this was how we raced every week, I'd find another job." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., after being involved in a 25-car crash on the final lap at Talladega on Oct. 7.
Honorable mention:"We're not going to put the prevent defense out there. We're going to go at you, and we're going to try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes we're going to miss, and they're going to get a big play out of it. But we've hit 'em a lot, and that's why we're in the points lead, and we're going to keep after it." -- Brad Keselowski, after a Charlotte race Oct. 13 in which he ran out of gas stretching a fuel run and finished 11th.
Early 2013 championship pick
Denny Hamlin:It's his time. Past his time, actually. Despite all the focus on Johnson and Keselowski, there were stretches this past year where no one was better, no one was faster, no one was more dominant. And yet, he was hamstrung through no real fault of his own -- all the fuel not getting into the No. 11 car during the final pit stop in the Chase opener at Chicago, an electrical switch left unchecked that proved the end at Martinsville. Oversights ruined Kyle Busch's 2008 title run, and they did the same this year to Hamlin, and perhaps the arrival of detail-oriented Matt Kenseth will help JGR button things down to the needed degree. Because cut out the mistakes, and there's nothing stopping Hamlin from winning multiple Sprint Cup championships -- starting next season.