The season got off to a spectacular start with this jet dryer fire in the Daytona 500 (Getty Images photo)
The Sprint Cup Series takes its final weekend off before picking things up with a furious 17-week straight run to end the 2012 season.
It's been an eventful journey since the year began at Daytona back in February, which in some ways seems like only yesterday but in others nearly a lifetime ago. So while NASCAR's top division enjoys well-deserved down time, here's a look at some of what has generated headlines so far in 2012:
MOST IMPROVED DRIVER
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to build on the successful formula he found last year and then some. Junior finally erased his nearly four-year winless drought last month and finds himself second in the standings by bringing home consistent finish week after week.
MOST IMPROVED TEAM
Michael Waltrip Racing has elevated itself into one of the sport's elite organizations almost overnight. Team owner Waltrip promised he was not just delivering lip service in the off-season when he said things would change for the better inside the team. The addition of Scott Miller to the role of competition director and an alliance with TRD's engine program has paid off handsomely. Newcomers Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin have paired up with holdover Martin Truex Jr. to make MWR a formidable operation.
Carl Edwards still insists the dull performance in the first 19 races of the season are not a “hangover effect” from coming down to the wire only to lose last year's Sprint Cup championship in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. All right, call it whatever you'd like but this is not what anyone – including Edwards or team owner Jack Roush – expected in 2012. The desperation went into overdrive earlier this week when Chad Norris replaced crew chief Bob Osborne. Now with only seven races left in the regular season, Edwards has one avenue into the Chase and that's as a wild card. He'll need at least two wins in order to even have a chance to make the playoffs and the way Edwards has run this year, that seems very unlikely.
BIGGEST SURPRISE VOLUME 1
The news that any driver failed NASCAR's substance abuse test would have been surprising enough but to find out it was AJ Allmendinger was completely shocking. Allmendinger appears to be one of the most physically fit and health conscious drivers in the sport but he finds himself literally fighting for his professional life as we await the results of the second sample test. However this turns out it is going to be a rough road ahead for the former open wheel star.
BIGGEST SURPRISE VOLUME 2
Matt Kenseth bolting Roush Fenway Racing was the NASCAR version of Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis for the greener pastures of Los Angeles. Kenseth has spent pretty much his entire NASCAR life with team owner Jack Roush so the news of his departure literally sent shock waves through the sport. As the story unfolds it's apparent there is some dissent inside the Roush camp and Kenseth's new opportunity, which will find him a member of Joe Gibbs Racing beginning in 2013, proved to be something he could not pass up. Whether Kenseth can still compete for this year's championship as a lame duck driver with the team will be fascinating to watch.
MOST SURPRISING TREND
Caution flags continue to be an endangered species in 2012 and the topic has been a controversial one since the year began. Some fans clamor for more yellows to spice up the action while others enjoy the green flag racing that has been predominant in reality across all three of NASCAR's top divisions. The discussion even sparked an idea from the ever-colorful Bruton Smith about throwing mandatory cautions or creating “TV timeouts” to bunch up the field, which was swiftly rejected by the sanctioning body. The talent level of drivers and the near indestructible design of today's Sprint Cup car are two explanations for why caution periods are down. But the theory of drivers and teams “big picture racing” with an eye on points and the championship is a more troubling speculation.
BEST RACE OF THE YEAR
The Daytona 500 was rained out for the first time in history and rescheduled as a prime-time spectacular on a Monday night. The result was a wild race that included typical restrictor plate racing madness, frayed emotions and even a red flag for fire after Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer under caution. Ratings were through the roof and NASCAR is said to be considering more night racing perhaps another mid-week outing.
WORST RACE OF THE YEAR
The April race at Texas Motor Speedway was as non-eventful a Sprint Cup Series race as possible. Strung out cars around a mile-and-a-half track with little or no passing for the lead created a forgettable night in the Lone Star State.