2012: The good, the bad and the ugly

Tony Stewart was caught by an ESPN camera grabbing the rear end of Kevin Harvick's wife before Sunday's race.

First-time champions.

It's the obvious theme of the 2012 season for American motorsports. NASCAR, IndyCar and the NHRA saw first-time champs crowned in almost every division.

It was a trio of new champions in the NHRA -- Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Jack Beckman in Funny Car and Allen Johnson in Pro Stock. IndyCar also had a first-time champ in Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/MCT/Getty Images

Ryan Hunter-Reay overcame a 36-point deficit with two races to go to become the first American champ in IndyCar since 2006.

And NASCAR did it in two of its three series -- Brad Keselowski in Sprint Cup and James Buescher in the Camping World Truck Series. The only repeat winner was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Nationwide Series.

But 2012 clearly was a changing of the guard at the top. Here's my annual look back at some of the memorable moments of the year:

• Most deserving new champion -- Roger Penske, one of the most respected team owners in auto racing history, finally earned that elusive Cup title. "This is the pinnacle of achievements that we can get in motor racing," said Penske, a man with 15 Indy 500 trophies.

• Best rally to the title -- Hunter-Reay, who was 36 points behind Will Power with two races remaining in the IndyCar season, came back to win the crown in the final race at Fontana, Calif. Hunter-Reay became the first American champ since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The two open-wheel leagues still were split at the time. Hunter-Reay is the first American since Al Unser Jr. in 1994 to win the title when open wheel was only one series.

• Craziest crash -- Juan Pablo Montoya slamming into a jet dryer under a caution in the Daytona 500, causing an enormous explosion that delayed the restart of the race.

• Instant Twitter stardom -- For Keselowski, tweeting photos of the jet-dryer fireball from his car during the red flag. He added over 100,000 followers that night and has added over 250,000 this season, but his in-car tweeting days are over. NASCAR fined him $25,000 for tweeting during a red flag at Phoenix two weeks ago. I'm guessing he added a few thousand more followers Sunday night when he won the Cup title.

• Most disappointing season -- Carl Edwards, failing to make the Chase or win a race after falling only one point short of the Cup championship in 2011.

• Most improved team -- Michael Waltrip Racing, which made a move into the Cup elite category this year by placing Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty Images

Racing at the 2012 Daytona 500 was stopped for more than two hours after Juan Pablo Montoya slid into a jet dryer, igniting an explosion.

• Best team -- Don Schumacher Racing in the NHRA. Not only did DSR have the champs in Top Fuel and Funny Car, it had the top three finishers in Top Fuel -- Brown, Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey, and the top two on Funny Car -- Beckman and runner-up Ron Capps.

• Worst landing -- The prerace skydiver who couldn't avoid having his trailing sandbag slam into Kevin Harvick's car on pit road before the Chase race at Texas Motor Speedway. It made a large dent in the driver-side door panel. And the guy even posed for photographers, proudly smiling in front of the dent.

• Best prediction -- Denny Hamlin calling his shot on Twitter before winning at New Hampshire in September. And he did the Babe Ruth-style point to the fence and swing afterward in Victory Lane.

• Best ESPN.com prediction -- Kudos to Ed Hinton, the only one of the ESPN.com boys back in February to predict Keselowski would win the title.

• Best final lap of the season -- Cale Gale winning the Camping World Truck Series finale by inches over Kyle Busch after the two trucks bumped, banged and traded paint as they crossed the finish line.

• Best day for the ladies -- Funny Car rookie Courtney Force and Pro Stock driver Erica Enders winning in Seattle, the first time two women in the NHRA pro classes won on the same day.

Courtesy of Ron Lewis Photography

Erica Enders, left, and Courtney Force made it a historic day for women in the NHRA with pro wins at Pacific Raceways near Seattle.

• Best moment for one lady -- Enders becoming the first woman ever to win in Pro Stock with her victory in Chicago.

• Wildest moment -- The postrace melee at Phoenix when Clint Bowyer's crew attacked Jeff Gordon and Bowyer ran through the garage to get to Gordon's hauler after Gordon intentionally wrecked him. One week later in the season finale at Homestead, Gordon won and Bowyer finished second.

• Best final event -- The NHRA's Auto Club Finals at Pomona. Allen Johnson won his first Pro Stock title after 17 years of trying. Jack Beckman won the Funny Car crown over teammate Ron Capps by only two points. And Antron Brown made history as the first African-American to win a major motorsports title, having to wait, watch and hope teammate Tony Schumacher lost in the final round. He did, barely, to Brandon Bernstein, making Brown the champ.

• Best new event -- The U.S. Grand Prix at the spectacular new Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin, Texas, Formula One's first American race in five years. The entire weekend went better than almost everyone expected. This may be the place where F1 sticks in the U.S.

• Most telling preseason quote -- Sprint Cup team owner Chip Ganassi calling his two-car team's 2011 performance "pathetic." Sadly for drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, that was true for 2012, as well.

• An appealing victory -- Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports winning its appeal over Knaus' six-week suspension from violations at Daytona, proving the NASCAR appeals process is much fairer than the one the NFL has that goes directly to the commissioner.

• Tweet omen -- INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard tweeting that one of the team owners was trying to get him fired. He was right: Bernard is gone. But playing out backroom politics on Twitter probably isn't a good idea.

• Worst fan toss -- A spectator throwing a shoe on the track that Danica Patrick ran over in Montreal.

• Worst departure -- Dodge opting to leave NASCAR after Penske Racing decided to switch to Ford in 2013. But Dodge exits as the Cup champion with Keselowski.

• Best safety improvement -- The NHRA approving the enclosed capsule for Tony Schumacher's Top Fuel dragster. Hopefully more drivers will use it in 2013, and maybe down the road IndyCar will do this, as well.

• Biggest Silly Season move -- Matt Kenseth leaving Roush Fenway Racing to take over in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season. Joey Logano leaves JGR to join Penske Racing in 2013.

• Worst headache -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. making the wise decision to see a doctor about his concussions and sitting out two races in the Chase. But Earnhardt admitted he never would have said anything had he still been in contention for the title.

Tyler Barrick/Getty Images

Clint Bowyer's championship hopes came to an end after a run-in with Jeff Gordon in the Chase's penultimate race at Phoenix.

• Worst continuing trend -- Start-and-parkers, taking home over $17 million dollars in the Cup this season for showing up and pretending to compete.

• Best comeback -- AJ Allmendinger, doing the right thing by completing NASCAR's Road to Recovery substance-abuse program and returning to the driver's seat.

• Best speedway improvement -- Kentucky Speedway, spending millions of dollars to correct the traffic quagmire from the 2011 race. Things were dramatically better in every area for the Kentucky event this season.

• Best road race finish -- The final lap of the Cup race at Watkins Glen. Keselowski bumped his way by leader Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose did the same to Keselowski. But they continued to bang and bump the rest of the way, with Ambrose getting sideways at one point when they were side by side before holding off Keselowski to win it.

• Surprising pinch -- Tony Stewart goosing DeLana Harvick on pit road before a race. It wasn't the first time (Stewart and the Harvicks are good friends), but it was the first time someone got it on camera, which became one of the most-watched videos of the year at ESPN.com.

• Earliest news -- ESPN's Marty Smith breaking a story that Kevin Harvick will leave Richard Childress Racing and join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. I'm guessing 2013 won't exactly be all warm and fuzzy at RCR.

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