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Posted: Wednesday November 28, 2012 2:32PM ; Updated: Wednesday November 28, 2012 3:57PM

NASCAR's 2012 season in review

Story Highlights

Brad Keselowski, Paul Wolfe had the best season of any driver-crew chief combo

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crash during testing proved to be one of the most significant

In the offseason, NASCAR needs to focus on how to attract more fans to the races

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Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski outdueled five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to claim his first Sprint Cup title this season.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The 2012 NASCAR season is in the books, concluded by crowning a new Sprint Cup champion. SI.com's racing writers Lars Anderson, Cary Estes, Dustin Long and Tim Tuttle examine the best and worst of this season, and look ahead at what's to come. (Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.)

Who was the best driver of the season?

Lars Anderson: You have to go with Brad Keselowski. He outperformed the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation (Jimmie Johnson) in the Chase by topping his career average finish at every track of the playoffs. Yes, Keselowski is seemingly getting faster with every lap and, at age 28, his best days are still ahead of him.

Cary Estes: Brad Keselowski. He not only won the championship, but he did it with an impressive combination of victories (five) and consistency (23 top-10s). Over the final 20 races of the season, beginning with his win at Kentucky, Keselowski finished outside the top-10 only three times and was worse than 15th just once. You can't get much better than that. Look for Keselowski to be a regular title contender for the next decade.

Dustin Long: Series champ Brad Keselowski. He closed out the season by scoring 17 top-10 finishes in the last 20 races, and didn't blink in his championship duel with Jimmie Johnson. There are a number of good drivers out there, but Keselowski avoided problems on the track, scored five victories (tied for most of any driver this season) and did just what he had to do to win the championship; he makes this an easy question to answer.

Tim Tuttle: With all due respect to Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson was the season's best driver. He tied Keselowski and Denny Hamlin with five wins and had the most top-five (18) and top-10 (24) finishes. Johnson most likely would have won his sixth Sprint Cup championship if not for the tire failure that put him in the wall at Phoenix followed by the pit stop mistake at Homestead-Miami.

GALLERY: 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup race winners

Who was the most disappointing driver of the season?

Anderson: Carl Edwards. A year after finishing second in the final standings to Tony Stewart, Edwards flopped in 2012. He failed to qualify for the Chase, failed to win a race for the first time since 2009 and wound up a career-low 15th in the final standings. I think Edwards will bounce back in 2013 and win multiple races, but many in the garage are for the first time wondering if Edwards will ever again be a legitimate title contender.

Estes: Kevin Harvick. Yes, Carl Edwards went from losing the 2011 championship by a single point to missing the Chase entirely in 2012, but championship runner-ups traditionally have a drop-off the following season. Harvick, on the other hand, seemed poised to make a serious title run this year. He finished third in the point standings in 2010 and 2011 and won seven races over those two seasons. But Harvick managed just one victory in 2012 and dropped to eighth in the final point standings.

Long: It's easy to say Carl Edwards for failing to make the Chase, but I'm going with Jeff Gordon solely for his actions at Phoenix, when he intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer. Gordon had every right to be angry at Bowyer for incidents during the year. Gordon took his shot at Phoenix and then put himself in the wall. The disappointment comes in Gordon slowing so Bowyer could come back around to make a second effort. It's one of the reasons I said Gordon should have been suspended for Homestead.

Tuttle: Carl Edwards. A year after losing the championship on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, he had the worst season of his eight full-time seasons in the Sprint Cup series. Not only were there no back-flipping celebrations for winning a race, but also he had career-lows in top-fives (three), top-10s (13) and championship finish (15th). It was a complete collapse for a driver and team (Roush-Fenway) of their ability.

Who was the most surprising driver of the season?

Anderson: Brad Keselowski. Before this season Keselowski had only three career wins and only 11 top-five finishes. This year? Well, he reached victory lane five times and had 13 top-five finishes. He reminds me of a young Tony Stewart, both in his aggressiveness behind the wheel and his force of personality that motivates those around him.

Estes: Clint Bowyer. Not much was expected of Bowyer this season, partly because he has been a second-tier driver most of his career (five victories over six seasons, missed the Chase entirely two of the previous three years) and partly because he was in his first year with the struggling Michael Waltrip Racing team. But MWR improved significantly in 2012, and Bowyer led the way. He had three victories, 23 top-10s and wound up finishing second in the point standings.

Long: Clint Bowyer has shown he can win races but I don't think too many people expected him to win three times and finish second in the points in his first season at Michael Waltrip Racing. When he left Richard Childress Racing for MWR, some people were suggesting it was a step down. Yet, Bowyer, working with a new crew chief and a new team, made it work.

Tuttle: Clint Bowyer. You could always call him Consistent Clint with those top-fives and top-10s that had carried him previously into three Chases, but this was a breakout campaign with a career-bests in wins (three), top-fives (10) and top-10s (23) and a championship finish (second) in his first season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Which driver has the most potential?

Anderson: Kyle Busch. If you polled the garage, Busch would win in a landslide. His ability to handle a loose racecar is off the charts, but Busch still can get overheated behind the wheel and become his own worst enemy by putting his car in a perilous position. Still, there's a general feeling in the sport that 2013 could be Busch's year. He finished this season with four straight top-four finishes, which means he scored more points over the final month than any other driver.

Estes: Joey Logano. He showed what he is capable of by winning nine times in 22 starts on the Nationwide Series this year. He also picked up a Sprint Cup victory, giving him the same number of Cup wins this season as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, and one more than Carl Edwards. And even though Logano already has four seasons of Cup experience, he is still only 22 and figures to get better. Moving to Penske Racing next season, where he will team up with Keselowski, should be beneficial.

Long: This might be the best group of newcomers working their way toward the Cup series in recent years. Ryan Blaney, the 18-year-old son of Dave Blaney, tops the list. He scored a top-10 finish in his Nationwide debut and won in his third start in the Truck series. He's in the Penske Racing pipeline, which can only mean good things for him.

Tuttle: Joey Logano was a prodigy in his early teens and became the youngest winner in the Nationwide Series at 18 and in Sprint Cup at 19. He didn't make the Chase in four seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he showed enough potential to make it through his contract. He was 16th in points in 2010, and 17th this season. Logano needed a change of scenery and crew chief, and moving to Penske Racing is just what the doctor ordered for him to starting winning races and making the Chase on an annual basis. Once he gets there, championships are possible. It's easy to forget he's only 22 and now has experience to go with his natural talent.

 
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