NASCAR

What were some of year's surprises?

Image: NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (© Kevin Liles/USA Today Sports)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a surge in 2012.
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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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Obviously, there has been a lot of talk about Brad Keselowski's championship and Clint Bowyer's surge to a runner-up finish in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Those were both runs that surprised those in the sport.

CELEBRATION TIME

NASCAR's top Sprint Cup drivers lit up Las Vegas.

But what were some of the other more surprising moments of the 2012 season?

Some of the more pleasant surprises of 2012 would be a bit of a resurgence, not what we were looking for and not what they were looking for, but a surge for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In his second year with crew chief Steve Letarte, he did win a race. It almost seems that he was maybe in position to contend for this championship before he had his two injuries and had to lay out for a couple of weeks. He came back and he really didn’t run that strong, but you almost wonder if that was still a little bit of a hangover from being gone two weeks. But still that was a little bit of a surprise.

We've all talked about Clint, but I would have to say Michael Waltrip Racing across the board was a surprise as well, having two teams make the Chase. I know that Martin Truex Jr. never won a race — a bit of a disappointment for them because Truex was the only driver in the Chase that didn’t win a race. But still, to get two guys in the Chase for the first time in the history of that organization was great, and then the way the No. 55 third team performed with three different drivers deserves notice as well.

That’s almost an impossible task, what they took on there with multiple drivers sharing the car week to week, but they made it work. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anybody make that work. I guess just that whole organization, across the board, was a bright spot for the sport.

I would also say Kasey Kahne. I don’t think it came as a surprise to see him run well in his first year at Hendrick, but he really gained ground. It was a brilliant move bringing crew chief Kenny Francis with him. Those guys won a couple of races and stayed in the thick of the hunt pretty much the whole Chase. A little inconsistent, which is something they’ve got to work on, but they did finish fourth in the points.

I’d say one of the disappointments would be Richard Childress Racing. I know Kevin Harvick made a crew chief change, I know Kevin won a race, but just across the board that organization’s got a lot of work to do. They know it. They truly know it.

I hate to say I agree with Jimmy Spencer. I never thought I’d say that, but he said on SPEED's "NASCAR Race Hub" that RCR needs a serious revamping and maybe even housecleaning. They’ve got a lot of work to do.

I’d say Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, too. There is probably not another organization in our sport that was gladder to see the 2012 season end. Neither Jamie McMurray nor Juan Pablo Montoya even had a top-five finish in 2012. I would have to say that was a huge disappointment.

The other one I’m hesitant to say was a disappointment, but when you look at Kyle Busch and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team — to know that Kyle Busch alone, running the top three series, it was not unusual for us over the past several years to talk about him winning double-digit races combined in all three series.

We know he cut his schedule back in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series, but whoever would have believed — I know you would have gotten every dime I’ve got because I would have been hesitant to bet — that Kyle Busch has one win in NASCAR in 2012 and that was at Richmond in the spring. The bright spot? I’m not sure anybody ran as consistently as he did in the Chase. That’s a head-scratcher because if you look at the years that Kyle made the Chase, the Achilles' heel has been the Chase, as he fell on his face before the Chase even got started good.

Brad Keselowski

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Go along for the ride as Brad Keselowski celebrates being champ.

This year, outside of the engine issues at Loudon and the wreck with Ryan Newman at Kansas, if he’d been in the Chase, he would have been up there competing with Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer for the championship. But it’s a disappointment that he didn’t make the Chase and that he only won one race.

Another disappointment is knowing how strong Tony Stewart ended the season last year in winning the championship and to come back and all of his bright spots were in the first half of this season. The last race he won was Daytona back in July, and he only had four top-five finishes after that.

Then, of course, there's Carl Edwards. I look at that whole deal and I just absolutely scratch my head and go, “What in the world?” How can you go from 19 top-five finishes one year to only three this season and not even come close to winning a race. Most of the season, we were talking about Carl Edwards being in position to get the free pass and get back on the lead lap.

Adding Jimmy Fennig as crew chief for 2013 is a good move for Carl. I know team owner Jack Roush had to do something. Right now that’s kind of his signature team.

I was disappointed because I felt like Jimmy Fennig was going to be the perfect crew chief for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his rookie season in Sprint Cup. It’s almost like they need two Jimmy Fennigs over there. Scott Graves will be fine for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. I know they worked together on the few Cup races that Ricky did run, but I felt like Jimmy was going to be the perfect scenario for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Off track — I can’t say they were surprises — but Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway after 13 years, winning a championship, winning two Daytona 500s — he had a lot of success with that team. He was not the guy who was going to go out and generally win six, seven races a year but certainly the guy that you knew was going to be there in the thick of the Chase year after year.

He made the Chase all but one year. But I think it was time for Matt to move on. For some reason — and this has to affect a driver; I’m sure it effects his salary negotiations — ever since DeWalt left a few years ago, the team has struggled to find sponsors for Matt and the No. 17. That has to take a toll on a driver. 

Now he’s going to an organization, for whatever reason, that seemingly has no problem putting sponsors on the car and that’s Joe Gibbs Racing.

Tagged: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmy Spencer, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski

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