NASCAR names top performances of 2012

No one saw this coming. No one. Brad Keselowski won his first race in 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway, running a part-time schedule with single-car team Phoenix Racing. It was a nice story in a long season, one that ended with Jimmie Johnson winning the championship. His second victory came in 2011 at Kansas Speedway while in his second full season with Penske Racing. That win moved him into 21st in points. Again, a feel-good story to weave into the year; one that culminates with Tony Stewart capturing his third title. Big-picture speaking, Keselowski's yearly career followed a similar story arch. Flashes of brilliance wherever he drove  be it the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series or his thus far brief tenure in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – all followed by a premier series title by two no-doubt-about-it NASCAR legends: Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. From the first primetime Daytona 500 through Keselowski and owner Roger Penske’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, the 2012 season was filled with drama, intrigue and more than a few "Top Performances." Here are a few of them, and as always, the choices are always up for welcome discussion.

Top Driver: Brad Keselowski: His series-high five wins notwithstanding, Keselowski's clutch playoff performance may live as the most memorable chapter from his first championship. He tallied two wins and eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase. His worst finish was just 15th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway  the exact finish he needed to guarantee the championship. In the last 40 years, Keselowski became only the third driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title within his first three seasons, joining NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

Comeback Driver of the Year: Clint Bowyer: In 2011, Clint Bowyer eked out one win, at Talladega, and missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Even Bowyer admitted that his move to Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2012 season likely wouldn’t lead to immediate success. Wrong. Bowyer won three times this season, leapfrogging Jimmie Johnson in the season finale at Homestead to finish a career-best second in points. Those three wins all came on different layouts  road course (Sonoma), short track (Richmond), and intermediate (Charlotte). Along with teammate Martin Truex Jr., the duo gave MWR its first Chase berth since joining the series fulltime in 2007.

Top Team: Hendrick Motorsports: Usually this spot is reserved for the championship team, but it’s impossible to ignore  and tribute  Hendrick Motorsports' history-making and milestone-achieving season. HMS, with Jimmie Johnson at the wheel, captured its 200th victory in one of NASCAR's crown jewels  the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It also won the Brickyard 400, also with Johnson. In all, HMS had a series-high 10 victories (Johnson, 5; Jeff Gordon, 2; Kasey Kahne, 2; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 1) and placed all four of its drivers in the Chase.

Top Breakthrough Performance: Brad Keselowski: In 2011, Keselowski made the Chase as one of the two Wild Card contenders. This year, he made it as the fourth seed. There’s little reason to believe his meteoric rise to stardom won’t continue for years to come. Keselowski's five wins this season came on some of the tougher tracks in the series, including Bristol, Dover and Talladega. But his ability to brush off pressure  and a five-time champion  during the Chase made him a champion, and a breakthrough performer.

Top Races
IRWIN Tools Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway (Aug. 25)  Bristol's night race evolved into Bristol's Night Race  capitalized  because of the emotional fender-bending, bump-and-running and temper-igniting qualities that blossom under the lights on the high banks. This race had all that, and more. The racing? Intense: Thirteen different drivers led a lap, three short of the all-time Bristol record. The action? Robust: There were 13 cautions, the most in the last 11 Bristol races. Denny Hamlin won the race, but two side acts stole the show. One, of course, is Tony Stewart’s helmet toss at Matt Kenseth's #17. The other, an undercard to Stewart vs. Kenseth, was Danica Patrick's finger point at Regan Smith after a wreck in her first Bristol race.

Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen, Watkins Glen International (Aug. 12)  Road course races have provided some of the most thrilling NASCAR moments, especially in recent years. This year’s Watkins Glen race was no different, especially on an epic last lap that will be remembered for years to come. Three prominent road course talents  Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose  battled for the lead on the last circuit, trading paint, running off course and doing literally anything to capture the checkered. Ambrose finally won the race, and earned it. According to NASCAR's Loop Data, Ambrose and Keselowski traded the lead four times on the final lap, a rarity on road courses.

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