With the NASCAR season officially coming to a close at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, here are the winners and losers from the last race of 2012:
Since Dale Earnhardt's death, fans have been clamoring for a driver who they could relate to, a driver who had blue collar roots, a penchant for hard racing and no qualms about expressing his opinions – whether people agreed with them or not.
Enter Brad Keselowski, who oozes charisma, drives hurt and is equally comfortable swigging beer in the middle of an interview or voicing his opinion in the media center. And on top of all that, NASCAR's new champion says he fully accepts being the face of the sport. In fact, it's a role he seems to be relishing.
Don't let Keselowski's antics post-race distract you from the fact this 28-year-old racer from Michigan is no flash in the pan. In just his third full season in Cup, Keselowski joins the aforementioned Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the only drivers to win a championship in three years or less.
So while no one knows what the future may hold, one thing we do know for certain is that with Keselowski as champion, the next 12 months are guaranteed to be entertaining – both on and off the track.
For a while there it seemed like Jimmie Johnson's swing-for-the-fences strategy was going to pay off and he was going to drive away with his sixth title. Then, suddenly, a miscue on pit road followed shortly after by a mechanical failure squashed those hopes. Nonetheless, Johnson, as he has done throughout his career, handled the heartbreak with class.
While Johnson may consider a year where he won five times and finished third in points a "disappointment," it is in fact just further proof of his greatness. Witness the fact that in 11 full seasons Johnson has won 60 races and five championships and has never finished worse than sixth in the final standings.
Furniture Row Racing has always been labeled a sleeping giant; that team that seemingly had the pieces in place but just needed one last ingredient to take it to the next level. Although it may be a small sample size, it appears that Kurt Busch was that missing piece. In his last three starts, Busch ended the year by finishing ninth, eighth and eighth – the first time Furniture Row has ever finished in the top in three consecutive races.
If Busch can maintain his focus and Furniture Row can raise its game, there is no reason why together they can't win races and compete for a spot in the Chase come 2013.
No. 48 team
When Johnson dominated at Texas and won from the pole, his sixth championship seemed like a foregone conclusion. And even after Johnson wrecked at Phoenix and handed the a sizeable points lead to Brad Keselowski, the opportunity was still there for him at Homestead with the No. 2 team besieged by poor fuel-mileage.
But in the end, self-inflicted mistakes came to define the 2012 Chase for the 48 team and prevented Johnson from taking another step towards immortality.
Denny Hamlin/Kyle Busch/Carl Edwards
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards all possess mammoth talent, all three drive for some of the biggest teams in the garage and all three have more career wins and starts than Brad Keselowski. Yet none of them have a championship to their name like Keselowski does. Which considering his checkered past with all three, that likely isn't going to sit well this offseason.
Not only did Clint Bowyer come in second to his nemesis at Homestead, he also finished second in the final championship order. That's not a bad thing, right? But if recent history is any indication, Bowyer may soon regret finishing as well as he did Sunday. After all the points runner-up has seen his performance drop off considerably the following season in almost every year of the Chase format.