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NASCAR Barometer: Championship Run

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Another season is in the books for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and despite being a heavy favorite at the start of the season, Jimmie Johnson came up short of a sixth title. Instead, it was Brad Keselowski who navigated the treacherous 10-race Chase schedule to hand "the Captain," Roger Penske, his first Sprint Cup title.


The final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway started with Kyle Busch dominating the early running. Both championship contenders fought to overcome niggling issues along the way, until Johnson was forced to retire with mechanical issues. The retirement of the No. 48 virtually handed the season's title to Keselowski, though the No. 2 had the upper hand for most of the day.


There are now just a handful of precious weeks for the drivers and teams to spend at home and with family. Testing will be here before we know it, and the Daytona 500 is just around the corner. Until that day, however, let's take a moment to reflect on who showed well in 2012, who fell short and who might be in a prime position entering the winter break.


UPGRADE


Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski truly put together a breakout year in 2012. He kept himself in a perfect position all year to make it into the Chase and then put his best foot forward in the final 10-race run to the finish. This feat was no small task, especially considering the team was the sole Dodge-powered outfit on the grid. The team switches to Ford in 2013, and Keselowski will have a new teammate in Joey Logano. The changes should not impact Keselowski's performance, though; he showed he can be a team leader even when paired with a much more experienced driver. Expect more wins for him and the team in 2013.


Jimmie Johnson -
A valiant effort nearly put Johnson into second position in the Chase standings for the second season in a row. Third is a disappointment, but only because he won five straight titles before finally being knocked off of the championship perch in 2012. Johnson won five races heading into 2012's finale. Any team that can consider that a disappointment clearly has a wealth of potential, and this team is one that can actually realize it in the coming season. Hendrick Motorsports will see 2012 as an opportunity that slipped through its fingers and this offseason will correct the issues that caused it to stumble. Look for Johnson to come back as a contender again next year.


Denny Hamlin -
Not wanting for wins in 2012, Hamlin instead found himself desperately searching for consistency. Joe Gibbs Racing had a pedigree of speed that nearly no other team could match this season, and Hamlin racked up five victories but failed to finish four times and finished too many races outside the top 20 to earn a championship. This team wins, and will work ultra hard to overcome its woes this winter. The extra time to assess mistakes on the track and in the garage will help all cars in the stable perform better in 2013. The biggest beneficiary of this work might be Hamlin, though. He seems to have more driving consistency than teammate Kyle Busch, and that could mean that he becomes a serious contender next year.


Michael Waltrip Racing -
Talk about a team that came of age in 2012, and you have to be referring to Michael Waltrip Racing. The team saw one car that rotated drivers throughout the year, and put two other full-time guys in the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. scored a pole for the team, and Clint Bowyer finished the highest of the MWR stable in the Chase standings. From a tough start at its inception, MWR has come leaps and bounds with Toyota power, poached some of the sport's best minds and managers and put it all into action to complete what was its best season to date. This team could suffer a hangover from all of its success in 2013, but from what we saw this year, there is no reason to believe that should be the case.


Kyle Busch -
Rest assured that Busch will not miss the Chase two seasons in a row. This was the first season Busch failed to win more than one race since 2007. He was massively disappointed to not qualify for the championship run but showed much more maturity throughout 2012 than in past seasons. He raced strong at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final race of the season, perhaps to prove he should have been fighting for the championship as well. Joe Gibbs Racing had its problems this season and needs to get on the same page for 2013, but there is no question that wins will come, and perhaps a championship trophy could find its way to its shop.


DOWNGRADE


Jeff Burton -
With three seasons finishing outside the top 10 in points, Burton may be past his sell-by date. He moved to Richard Childress Racing in the middle of the 2004 season from Roush-Fenway Racing where he had spent much of his Sprint Cup career. Since that move, he has only tallied three top-10 points finishes, and only a handful of wins. This partnership hasn't produced many high moments, and if it hasn't clicked by now, there is no reason to believe things will change next season. Burton only scored two top-5 finishes in each of the last two seasons, and that simply is not good enough in this day and age, especially for a team like RCR.


Joey Logano -
For the first time in his Sprint Cup career, Logano will be starting inside a car not owned by Joe Gibbs Racing. He will be the reigning championship winner's teammate, getting a new lease on life. Much was expected of this young driver, and he hasn't fully lived up to his expectations, despite finding Victory Lane twice with JGR. If Logano can adapt well to his new surroundings, he might learn what it takes to consistently finish atop the order. This season will be his first with Ford power too, as Penske makes the switch from Dodge. Logano should outperform Sam Hornish Jr., and perhaps even A.J. Allmendinger, in the seat of the No. 12, but instant comparisons to his new teammate may have to wait.


Kurt Busch -
Busch is a strong contender for the season's most dysfunctional trailer. Despite rattling off three consecutive top-10 finishes with new team Furniture Row Racing to close out the season, Busch was parked by NASCAR at one point, and then turned his back on the team that voted to keep him in the seat after the unnecessary drama. Busch might be a strong utility player for fantasy owners in 2013, but he isn't likely to find Victory Lane more often than when he was with Roush or Penske. Still, he is a talented driver who can turn in a top performance, but fantasy owners must use his starts judiciously. Busch could go either way depending on the day, and that makes him a gamble, albeit with some upside.


Carl Edwards -
Just one year after finishing runner-up in the Chase, Edwards barely made his presence felt in the 2012 Sprint Cup season. It was a disastrous year for the No. 99, which failed to win a race and brought home just three top-5s. Those statistics pale in comparison to the 19 top-5s it scored just one season earlier. To compound the misery, Edwards had two teammates in Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle who dominated the points for much of the season. Things need to change for Edwards in 2013, or he could find himself on a very slippery downward slope in competitiveness. Through the winter this team might be burning more candlelight than others as it works hard to overcome the chasm in which it finds stuck.


Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing -
The teammates of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya combined for a whopping five top-10 finishes throughout all of 2012. They finished 21st and 22nd in points and tallied one of their most uncompetitive seasons to date. When the two teams combined it seemed like a great move that could help bring a championship closer to reality. Those dreams have not played out as expected, and this partnership could be a candidate for a major shake-up before next season kicks off in Daytona. These teammates haven't seen a win since 2010 and have combined for just four top-5s in the last two years. There is a lot of work to be done, and rethinking the wheel would not be out of line in this garage.


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