NASCAR Sprint Cup Season Wrap-Up

It’s been a couple weeks since the NASCAR Sprint Cup season ended with Brad Keselowski winning the championship. We spent the year chronicling the doings on the NASCAR circuit with TheSportsNotebook’s consultant on this sport, my brother Bill. So I thought we’d bring in our resident expert one more time to offer closing thoughts on the season and early peek at next February in Daytona.

“The biggest news—besides Bad Brad winning the championship—was Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway,” Bill said, regarding the surprising midseason news that Kenseth was changing teams. Kenseth won last year’s Daytona, finished seventh overall and earned over $7.5 million in purses, the second-highest money total on the circuit. That’s a lot of dough to be changing hands and losing Kenseth marked two sports that the ownership group that also owns the Boston Red Sox floundered at handling this year.

Another key development came early, when Jimmie Johnson was suspended for cheating—essentially juicing his car and putting it on steroids and penalized 25 points in the standings. An arbitration hearing resulted in Johnson getting his points restored and when he held the lead in the standings with two weeks to go it looked like that might swing the championship.

Bill was sharply critical of the arbitrator’s ruling and called the integrity of the process into question. “(Johnson)drives a Chevy and the arbitrator was a former Chevy engineer,” he said. “Just like a judge has to recuse himself when there’s a conflict of interest, this arbitrator should have too.” Bill went on to say though, that what we might politely call the uniqueness of Johnson’s relationship with the arbitrator make it unlikely the ruling will invite widespread cheating—not all drivers could count on that kind of leniency in a hearing.

Another maneuver on the business side of NASCAR means that Dodge will not have any cars in the field next year. Penske Racing ended its relationship with Dodge, leaving the well-known automaker out in the cold, at least for now. There are no credible rumors of any other teams looking to do a deal with Dodge, meaning we’re likely at least a couple years out from this circumstance changing. If it was Dodge’s last hurrah, it was a grand exit—Keselowski drove a Dodge en route to his title, a fact that may hasten their return to the action.

Keselowski’s victory was certainly the most pleasant surprise of the season, as he won it all in just his third year on the circuit. But it had been a longer wait for his owner, Roger Penske. One of the biggest names in racing, with Indy 500 wins to his credit, Penske had gone three decades without having one of his drivers climb to the top of the NASCAR standings and this year ended that wait. The veteran owner and the young driver each brought home their first Cup.

When we look ahead to 2013, the team that’s getting some positive publicity is Richard Petty Motorsports. They have two drivers, Marcus Ambrose and Aric Almirola. Neither one made the 12-driver playoff field this year, but both drove well down the stretch and got better as the season progressed. If you’re looking for a surprise new contender in ’13, these are two good drivers to start with.

NASCAR comes back again in February with the annual running of the Daytona 500. TheSportsNotebook will be back, Bill will be giving his us his junkie-level analysis of the drivers and the uniqueness of each track. For now, we head into the offseason with a  salute to Keselowski and Penske, who brought it home in 2012.