Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rating the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season: 2 Stars **

The 2012 Sprint Cup Series struggled to keep the momentum created by the closest championship battle in series history in 2011 when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards by a tiebreaker. The 2012 version was defined by lots of green-flag racing, which isn’t a bad thing, but the excitement level was noticeably down this year. The 2012 season gets a 2 Star Rating.
Brad Keselowski helped add some spark (and suds) to the finish of the season as he beat five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to win the title. However, the number of memorable races can probably be counted on one hand.
Here’s the breakdown of this year’s ratings, which includes the Budweiser Shootout and Sprint All-Star Race. It does not include the annual “You Rate the Race” event, which this season was at Kentucky Speedway.
5 Stars: 5 races
4 Stars: 10 races
3 Stars: 8 races
2 Stars: 10 races
1 Star: 4 races
This year had the most 1 Star races in the history of Monday Morning Crew Chief, and the number of 5 Star races dropped from eight to five.
Let’s revisit some of the most memorable races of the season. Click on the links to see the rating for each race mentioned.
We’ll start with Daytona Speedweeks, which included a very exciting Budweiser Shootout and bizarre Daytona 500. Kyle Busch drove through turns 3 and 4 sideways early in the shootout, sending sparks flying from his car. The damage wasn’t enough to slow him down, though, and he came back to win the race by a few feet ahead of Tony Stewart at the finish line in a race that started the season with a 5 Star Rating.
The Daytona 500 was definitely the strangest of the season, and perhaps one of the strangest in the history of the sport. Rain postponed the race until not only Monday, but Monday night in primetime. Busch sent sparks flying in the shootout, but Juan Pablo Montoya did him one better by crashing into a jet dryer under caution. The impact created an explosion and fire in Turn 3 that put the race under a red flag. Matt Kenseth ended up winning the race that got a 3 Star Rating because of the day-and-a-half rain delay.
Once the series left Daytona, the long green-flag runs set in. The racing was remarkably clean, which is good, but the drivers stayed spread out enough on tracks such as Phoenix, Fontana, Texas and even Richmond that any excitement from Speedweeks or the previous season had disappeared. Just six races following Speedweeks received a rating higher than 3 Stars until the series went back to Daytona in July for a 5 Star race.
The second half of the season started to gain momentum as drivers such as Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon battled back from early season troubles to make the race. Kahne grabbed a wild-card spot, and Gordon snuck by Busch by one point to claim the 10th and final Chase spot based on points. That final regular-season race at Richmond received a 4 Star Rating, and Clint Bowyer took home the trophy.
Johnson won another Brickyard 400 this year, his fourth, but the race was less than thrilling in part because of his dominance. It received a 2 Star Rating.
However, things got interesting two weeks later at Watkins Glen as Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose slide through oil as Busch wrecked on the final lap. Keselowski and Ambrose had the best final-lap battle of the season, and Ambrose came out on top to win for the second year in a row on the road course. That final lap bumped the race to a 4 Star Rating.
The late-season fireworks first showed up at the, once again, newly reconfigured Bristol Motor Speedway during the August night race. The shaved top groove brought back the old-style beating and banging, although this time at the top of the racetrack. Stewart and Kenseth crashed while battling for the lead, and Stewart threw his helmet at Kenseth’s car, bouncing it off the hood of Kenseth’s #17. Danica Patrick also wrecked and angrily shook her finger at Regan Smith. Denny Hamlin ended up winning the 5 Star Race. He won again the next week at Atlanta and a month later at New Hampshire, but too many mechanical problems ended his championship run.
Once the Chase began, Keselowski took charge by winning at Chicago and Dover, neither of which were particularly action-packed races. They both got 2 Star Ratings.
The action-packed Chase race this season was at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick rose from the desert dust to win his first race of the season, but he was a mere footnote to the craziness of that 5 Star afternoon. Gordon and Clint Bowyer battled late in the race, and Gordon cut a tire from the battle and crashed. He then waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and intentionally wrecked him. Bowyer’s pit crew was waiting for Gordon when he drove back to the garage, and they immediately jumped him, inciting one of the largest brawls the sport had seen in years. Patrick also played a hand in this crazy race. She wrecked as the field came to the white flag, put down oil in Turn 4 coming to the finish line, and a half-dozen cars piled up as they crossed the line.
That all set the stage for the championship race at Homestead. Keselowski came into the race with a 20-point lead of Johnson and qualified third to Johnson’s 10th. Johnson made a run to the front that night and might have won the title until a loose lug nut penalty cost him time on the track and a problem in the drivetrain sent him to the garage early, effectively handing Keselowski the championship.
This year marked the end of the Car of Tomorrow body style NASCAR introduced in 2007. A new model will be used next year. As is the case with every new model, NASCAR officials say it will race better than the previous version. That wasn’t the case the last time around, but at least the new cars look better.
Next year will also have its fair share of new drivers with new teams. Most notably, Kenseth will move to the #20 car, while Joey Logano takes over the #22 ride. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will fill the #17 car, and Kurt Busch will continue to try and revive his career in the #78 car, formerly driven by Smith.
The 2012 season had its exciting and interesting moments. Let’s just hope there are more in 2013.

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