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Menzer: Relive the top surprises of the 2012 season

December 03, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Everyone likes a good surprise, don't they?

Well, most of the time they do anyway. The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was full of them. Here is one man's opinion of the top ones over the season that just was ...

1. Dodge Motorsports going out on top after announcement earlier in the year that it was leaving NASCAR -- at least for the time being.

Most figured that the two Dodge teams left standing would fade away after Penske Racing announced in March that it would be switching from Dodges to Fords beginning in 2013. Dodge searched around for a while to see if it could find a way to stay in the game, but didn't want to commit its obviously considerable resources to a mid-level team or teams and found no one more competitive readily available to make a late switch.

* Dodge aims for celebratory going-away party

So it threw everything it had behind the 2012 efforts at Penske, helping driver Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Dodge team take the manufacturer out on top when Keselowski held off five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to win his first title. It was an impressive stage-left exit for the proud manufacturer, which hasn't ruled out a return to NASCAR in the possibly very near future.

2. Penske Racing announcing the move from Dodge to Ford in the first place.

Edwards' Struggles

2011-2012 Comparison

This was a deal about timing and money. Ford was able to offer more dollars and, more importantly, the stability of a longer contract. Owner Roger Penske felt he couldn't turn it down when Dodge couldn't, or at least immediately wouldn't, at least match the offer.

* Penske shakes up manufacturer lineup by returning to Ford fold for 2013 season

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was that it became under these unusual lame-duck circumstances that Penske finally earned his first Cup championship after 40 years in the sport. What took so long?

3. Carl Edwards failing to make the Chase.

Remember Carl Edwards? One year after losing out on the Cup title only via a tiebreaker following an epic Chase duel with champion Tony Stewart, Edwards finished 15th in points and failed to win a single race.

* Edwards finds himself out of the spotlight

The most startling and telling statistic of his unexpected collapse? Edwards led more than one lap in only two races, leading 206 of his meager season's total of 254 in the spring Richmond race. In the remaining 27 races of the season, he basically was never in serious contention for a race win (even when he led 45 laps in the first Bristol race, he ultimately finished 22nd, four laps down). Insiders blame the fact that his No. 99 team that was so competitive last year lost some key engineering help last offseason. If so, they should offer those guys the moon to come back to RFR.

4. Kyle Busch failing to make the Chase.

Like Edwards, Busch was supposed to be a title contender. Unlike Edwards, he often looked like one.

* Rogers' call costs Busch shot at championship

Busch won one race -- the same spring Richmond one that had been dominated earlier by Edwards -- and led a total of 1,436 laps on the season. He led 32 or more laps in 14 different races, including 302 of 400 without winning at Dover in the fall. Yet in the end, bad luck and a poor pit call by crew chief Dave Rogers in the regular-season finale at Richmond kept Busch from even making the Chase, let alone contending for the title. He had to settle for 13th in the point standings, the first finisher outside the Chase and the one spot no one ever really wants to finish in for a season.

5. Matt Kenseth finishing strong with Roush Fenway Racing after announcing he was leaving at season's end to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Again, once the announcement was made fairly early in the season -- at Kentucky Speedway in June -- many figured Kenseth's final season at Roush Fenway Racing was toast. Instead, he not only remained competitive enough to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but kept winning races.

Kenseth, who opened the season by winning the Daytona 500 and at one point was offered what amounted to a lifetime contract by RFR co-owner Jack Roush, even won two Chase races after finally making it official that he was trading in his longtime Ford ride for a Toyota to be fielded by JGR. He finished a respectable seventh in points.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbing out of his No. 88 Chevrolet race car for two weeks during the middle of the Chase because of a concussion.

Make no mistake. Earnhardt's hopes for a first Cup championship were pretty much already in the tank when he agreed to step out of the car at Charlotte in October. And even he has admitted repeatedly that he probably should have come forward sooner to be examined by a professional after suffering what later was diagnosed as an initial concussion in a crash during a test at Kansas six weeks earlier.

But he still ultimately did the right thing and should be applauded for it. It couldn't have been easy to do. The lingering question is whether or not he would have had the courage to do it if he was still in the hunt for that elusive championship at the time. Even he might not know the true answer to that one, and that's one of the problems facing the sport going forward -- as other drivers readily admitted they would not admit to concussion-like symptoms if it meant giving up a title hunt when they were close to possibly winning a championship.

7. The fact that Earnhardt didn't win again after breaking a 143-race winless streak with a June triumph at Michigan.

Cynics might say the real surprise was that Earnhardt won at all. But all the signs were there earlier in the season that a win was on the horizon, and the way he won in dominating fashion at Michigan actually suggested that he and crew chief Steve Letarte were hitting on something special that would carry over to the remaining races in the season.

* Earnhardt Jr. cruises to first win in four years

Instead, they got stuck on the number four. They finished no higher than fourth in the remaining 19 races they ran. And they did that four times. If only they could run the June race at Michigan every week instead of only once a season. It is in that race that Earnhardt has posted the last two Cup victories of his career -- over a span of five years.

8. The best finish of the year coming on a road course at Watkins Glen International.

Give it up -- again -- for the road courses. The sport could use a couple more of 'em, including at least one in the Chase. For proof all one has to do is rewind the video from the epic August finish at WGI, when road-course specialist Marcos Ambrose went door-to-door with Keselowski down the stretch to the checkered flag in arguably the best finish of the season.

* Video: Ambrose wins after slick last lap

Check that. There should be no argument. It WAS the best finish of the season, bar none. Ovals, take note.

9. Jeff Gordon's stupid retaliation on Clint Bowyer at Phoenix.

Gordon is getting testy in his old age. It wasn't only the decision itself to sit and wait for Bowyer to come back around on the Phoenix track after the four-time champion thought he had been wronged; it was when he decided to do it, heading into the final lap of the next-to-last race in the Chase when so many others could have been impacted negatively by his stupidity.

* Video: Gordon retaliates against Bowyer, fight ensues

Yes, Gordon later made his case for why he did what he did -- and team owner Rick Hendrick backed him, as Hendrick should do. But it was dumb, plain and simple, and no one should blame Bowyer for being so upset that he tried to chase Gordon all the way to his No. 24 hauler afterward. After all, Gordon did effectively end Bowyer's slim championship hopes.

10. Brian Vickers' performance in the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.

If anyone ever doubted Vickers' abilities as a race-car driver, they should be cleared up now. Driving only a handful of races in the MWR-prepared No. 55 ride that he shares with Mark Martin and team owner Michael Waltrip, Vickers was competitive nearly every time out.

* Vickers agrees to nine-race Cup schedule with MWR instead of full-time ride elsewhere

He finished fifth in his first start at Bristol, fourth in his third start on the road course at Sonoma, and was forurth again in a return trip to the short track at Bristol in August. In eight starts overall, he racked up the three top-five and five top-10 finishes while leading a total of 158 laps. If Martin and Waltrip ever retire completely -- and here's hoping they both do by 2014 -- Vickers deserves a full-time opportunity in the No. 55 car and should get it. He's earned it.

Notice what wasn't one of the top 10 surprises? Keselowski winning his first championship. That's because it wasn't much of one. Despite Keselowski's youth and the fact that this was only his third full-time Cup season, he finished fifth in the Chase in 2011 and everyone, including Jimmie Johnson, could see him coming.