By many race fans' standards, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season wasn't the most exciting. It definitely had some memorable moments: the jet dryer fire in the Daytona 500 started the season; Tony Stewart's helmet throw at Matt Kenseth punctuated Bristol's on-track fireworks; and, the Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer melee marked the end of a frustrating season for a No. 24 team still struggling to succeed with the Chase format.
In between instances, however, NASCAR fans complained about follow-the-leader racing. The Chase lost its competitive nature when Jimmie Johnson hit the wall in Phoenix, ending any hope of drama during the season's final race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell out of the running due to a concussion suffered in a highly dangerous, last lap wreck at Talladega. And, Kevin Harvick needed a late season win at Phoenix to avoid being the second chaser, along with Martin Truex Jr., to go the whole season without a win.
It's not that bleak though. NASCAR fans at their core love to argue. For every complaint that the racing wasn't exciting, there was someone reminding people that it's a sport about finishing with the fastest car, not wrecking it.
We crowned a brand new champion for the first time since Jimmie Johnson won his inaugural title in 2006. Brad Keslowski is only the fourth driver to win the Chase since its inception in 2004, and at the age of 28, he is poised to be a force for the next decade. The year featured the emergence of Michael Waltrip Racing and the resurrection of Kasey Kahne. Meanwhile, the dominant car in 2011, the No. 99 of Carl Edwards, was nowhere to be found and the always exciting Kyle Busch mysteriously skipped his second Chase in four seasons.
By all accounts, this year was a looks-are-in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder season. The fans whose drivers didn't run up front often enough found ways to complain and make excuses. The fans of the drivers that had better than expected seasons thought that everything was honky-dory.
At the beginning of the season, I gave out race flags to drivers based on how I expected them to do this season. As we review the year, it's time to reassign the flags. It's likely that the drivers receiving positive flags had fans that loved 2012. Those that receive negative flags probably have the fans that didn't have fun with the sport this year.
Let's look at the best and worst of 2012 lined up by row.
Checkered Flag - The biggest winners of 2012.
Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing - Clearly, the guy that took the season's checkered flag sits atop the list. At age 28, Keselowski has a bright future in Cup and I'd be surprised if he doesn't win at least two or three more championships. This year's title was also a huge gain for Penske Racing, which finally won its first title.
Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing - It wasn't surprising to finally see Bowyer put together a spectacular season that included three wins and a second place overall finish. What was surprising was that he achieved the success in the year immediately following his departure from the established Richard Childress Racing for the upstart Michael Waltrip Racing team. At the age of 33, Bowyer has many more years to serve as the bell cow of MWR.
Green Flag - Drivers that continue to perform well.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus - The No. 48 team is like the New York Yankees of NASCAR. Supporters love them because they win, non-supporters loathe them for the exact same reason. No matter which camp you're in, it's clear that the team will continue to be a force each and every year. Johnson led the points with two weeks to go before a few unlucky finishes.
Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb - It's not a matter of if, but when, Hamlin will claim his first Cup championship. He certainly had some hiccups with the new crew chief, but still managed to win five races. Grubb proved he can orchestrate a championship when he won with Tony Stewart in 2011 and Hamlin is one of the best drivers, from a talent standpoint, in NASCAR.
Caution Flag - Drivers that need to figure something out soon.
Jeff Gordon - At the age of 41, Gordon is far from a "Wonder Kid" anymore. The window for him to claim his one-for-the-thumb, fifth championship is closing and he hasn't won a title since before the creation of the Chase in 2004. The incident in Phoenix (above) spoke to the frustration he felt in another disappointing season. If he doesn't win the elusive fifth title soon, he probably won't ever win it.
Kyle Busch - The younger Busch is one of the most polarizing drivers in the sport, but there's no denying the guy has talent. In fact, he might be the most talented driver from a raw talent standpoint in all of NASCAR. However, he's not translating that into Cup success. Sure, he wins plenty of races, but he's missed two of the last four Chases and finished 12th in another one.
Red Flag - Drivers that disappointed and went nowhere in 2012.
Carl Edwards - A year after getting edged for the championship via a tiebreaker and taking a whopping 19 top-fives, Edwards finished with a mere three top-fives and just 13 top-10s. The struggles eventually led to the dismissal of crew chief Bob Osbourne (above), but that didn't seem to solve anything on the track.
Ryan Newman - Newman drives better on shorter, technical tracks and tends to be an also-ran at the larger, faster venues. It seems a little counterintuitive, as he proves his vast driving ability at the short tracks, but that's the case. He didn't qualify for the Chase this year, but even in years when he does, he doesn't usually contend.
Black Flag - Drivers whose actions are costing them their careers.
Kurt Busch - There are only so many more chances for the former Cup champion. After a tumultuous departure from Penske Racing, he promised to clean up his act in 2012. He did not. The step from Phoenix Racing to Furniture Row Racing is far more positive than the one he claimed to have taken a year ago, but if he doesn't change his behavior, his days in NASCAR's elite level will be limited.
AJ Allmendinger - Coincidentally, the man that took over Kurt Busch's No. 22 ride did no better than his predecessor. He ended up following him into the No. 51 ride at Phoenix Racing after being released from Penske Racing due to a failed drug test and a suspension. It's not a good thing if you're following Busch's career path, and Allmendinger doesn't have the track record to guarantee he'll ever return to a prominent Cup ride.
Passing Flag - Drivers that will soon pass the torch to the younger generation.
Jeff Burton - Throughout his career, Burton has been a good driver and a better person. However, at the age of 45, he's not getting any younger and he's certainly not getting any better. He made the Chase in 2010, but he's scored just 11 top-10s in the last two seasons and hasn't won a race since 2008. Burton is a man that will have a great second career, and he'll probably move on to it sooner than later.
Michael Waltrip - I suppose I could have gone with Mark Martin, who started 24 races in the No. 55 to just four for the car owner, but it's time for Waltrip to step out of the car. He was never a fantastic driver and he's already looking much better as an owner than he ever did driving. The next step for MWR is to field a third full-time driver. Martin did much better than expected, and Brian Vickers was also highly successful. Waltrip's desire to continue to race will hurt his team's ability to grow.