The youth of NASCAR made a bold statement in all three national series as a trio of 20-somethings found themselves hoisting their respective championship trophies as the 2012 season came to a close recently at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Twenty-eight-year-old Brad Keselowski captured the Sprint Cup Series championship while 25-year-old Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Nationwide Series crown and 22-year-old James Buescher took home the Camping World Truck Series title. Three talents from three different backgrounds, but headed in the same direction in terms of their careers.
Keselowski, a native of Rochester Hills, Michigan, burst upon the American public this year initially with his social media skills rather than his driving skills. During the season-opening Daytona 500, he was tweeting photos from his car during a red flag stoppage for Juan Pablo Montoya’s infamous accident with the jet dryer truck that exploded into a ball of flames. Suddenly, the third-year Sprint Cup Series driver with Penske Racing had more than a hundred thousand new Twitter followers who got to join him on his magical ride to the Sprint Cup Series championship.
While driving like a seasoned veteran in the Chase to fend off five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski exhibited his youthful exuberance in his post-race championship interview at Homestead with ESPN’s SportsCenter that became a YouTube sensation. He came on live swigging Miller Lite – his car sponsor – out of a giant Warsteiner beer glass and said he was already buzzing. While many were amused by his antics, he also had his detractors.
“I think everybody faces their criticism no matter what you do,” Keselowski said. “You're never going to get all of the people to like something that you do. It's not possible. Someone's always going to dislike something you do, and you have to roll that off your shoulders and move on. But if you're true to yourself in the long run, those things will work themselves out.
“I had fun and I wanted to show that fun and enjoy it with others. I'm more thrilled that people enjoyed than I am disappointed to questioning my path because someone else didn't like it. It looked like a guy that was having fun which is what I was having. I'm proud of that moment. I'm proud to be a Sprint Cup champion.”
And Keselowski could be contending for more championships in his immediate future. After a lackluster 2010 Sprint Cup rookie campaign in which he finished 25th in points with only two top-10 finishes, Keselowski has made dramatic gains. In 2011, he earned three victories and finished fifth in the championship. This year, he tied for the series lead in wins with five and won the Sprint Cup title despite just 125 career Cup starts under his belt.
“I had a pretty good idea what we needed to do to win the championship at the end of last year to be quite honest,” Keselowski said. “We didn't quite execute as strongly as we needed to. We finished strong and finished fifth in the points, but that process was certainly a learning process. I think we applied some of those lessons to 2012.”
Stenhouse Jr., a native of Olive Branch, Miss., has proven to Roush Fenway Racing all he needs to in the Nationwide Series after just three full seasons. He won back-to-back series titles to become just the second driver since 2000 to accomplish the feat and sixth in NNS history. Like Keselowski, he tackled a veteran – former Cup Series driver Elliott Sadler – to claim the title.
Stenhouse Jr. earned eight victories in his two title-winning years – including a series-leading six this season – and his talent level definitely caught the eye of owner Jack Roush. Roush had discussed with Stenhouse Jr. about adding a fourth Sprint Cup entry for him in 2013, but now he has been handed the wheel of the coveted No. 17 Sprint Cup car of Matt Kenseth, who moves on to Joe Gibbs Racing where he will drive the No. 20 Cup entry in 2013.
“It will be an exciting transition for Ricky and the team next season,” Roush said. “We take great pride in driver development, and it is rewarding for all involved any time we are able to watch one of our young men grow and progress. We have seen Ricky develop into a NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, and now his career path comes to fruition in the Sprint Cup Series next season.
“It didn't really change my outlook on the season, but it is comforting knowing that you have that already in place,” Stenhouse Jr. added. “Last year I came into Homestead, we won the championship and we still didn't know if we were running Cup or Nationwide for 2012 until the end of December. So that's always nerve-wracking. It's always nice to have that in the back of your mind.”
Buescher, a native of Plano, Texas who began his racing career at Lil’ Texas Motor Speedway, also made significant gains and opened some more eyes from a year ago. In 2011, he finished third in the Camping World Truck Series championship, but flew under the radar since he remained winless in his three full seasons in the series.
He opened 2012 by winning the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona in February for his first career NASCAR win. The floodgates to Victory Lane opened as he notched his first truck series win in the fourth race of the season (Kansas) and went on to post a series-leading four victories for Turner Motorsports. Among the three new champions, he had the closest battle as he edged runner-up Timothy Peters by just four points.
Turner Motorsports, which fields entries in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series, has yet to announce their 2013 overall plans and where Buescher will find himself racing next season. Considering that team owner Steve Turner is Buescher’s father-in-law, it would be a high probability that he would keep the rising star close by his side and within the organization.
“This year has been incredible for me,” Buescher said. “First of all, I got married in January, and my wife is my No. 1 supporter, so to be able to start off the race season after taking that next step in my life with a win at Daytona was incredible, best thing I'd ever done in racing. You know, that kind of opened the floodgates for us to win some races on the truck side. We won four of them, and now we're the champions. … It's been a phenomenal year for my racing career and for my personal life. I just feel really blessed.”