CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The season hadn't even ended before NASCAR's top executives were previewing 2013, the new "Gen 6" cars and elements of a five-year industry "action plan" designed to engage and excite fans.
The season ended with a celebratory final image of fresh-faced champion Brad Keselowski, drunk on the combination of his sponsor's beer and the joy of giving team owner Roger Penske his first championship. And the days since Sunday's finale have been a coming out party for the 28-year-old from suburban Detroit, who is all over the television dial smoothly shilling for NASCAR.
It's a reprieve from the bad news: ESPN's ratings from the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway were down 25 percent from last year's race, the most-viewed in network history. Ratings were down or flat for all 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races this season.
Why? Because the racing in 2012 was mostly forgettable, something chairman Brian France has tasked his entire competition department with fixing.
"The missing and final piece, which we're working on now, is to improve on the quality of racing," France said before Sunday's finale. "Everyone knows a stated goal of ours is to have the closest, most competitive, tightest racing that we can. And that's what we're testing now."
So in one sense, NASCAR couldn't wait to get out of Homestead and officially close a 2012 season that opened with perhaps the most bizarre Daytona 500 in history.
Heavy rains washed out NASCAR's marquee event for the first time in 54 runnings, pushing the race into a prime-time Monday night slot. Then, a freak crash between Juan Pablo Montoya and a truck loaded with jet fuel ignited a fuel fire and a nearly two-hour delay.
While track workers tried to clean the mess with Tide laundry detergent, Keselowski grabbed worldwide attention with both thumbs by tweeting updates from his car.
The TV ratings were good, the buzz surrounding NASCAR was better but it wasn't sustainable as the Sprint Cup Series quickly fell into a stretch of nearly unwatchable racing. California ran caution-free until rain brought out the yellow that eventually stopped the race. Texas had two debris cautions until the race went green 234 laps to the finish.
Bristol had just one multi-car crash and featured a 219-lap green-flag run. Kansas in the spring had three cautions, two for debris and one for a single-car spin and the race ended with a 75-lap green-flag run.
With Richmond and Talladega looming, fans believed action-packed racing was ahead. Instead, Richmond was a bland affair until Carl Edwards was accused of jumping a late restart and Talladega exposed the disconnect between drivers and fans. Sure, there was the usual late-race multi-car accident, and Tony Stewart's tongue-in-cheek assessment of the racing proved there's no middle ground in racin' vs. wreckin'.
"It's not fair to these fans for them to not see more wrecks than that and more torn-up cars," he sarcastically said after the May race. "We still had over half the cars running at the end, and it shouldn't be that way."
When NASCAR returned to Daytona in July, promoter Bruton Smith was calling for mandatory cautions to spice up the racing and France was adamantly opposed to the need for gimmicks. But, France revealed that he'd dispatched senior vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell to North Carolina to repurpose NASCAR's research and development center and zero in on the correct rules package for the debut of the new car next year.
Hours before the race, AJ Allmendinger was suspended for failing a random drug test. Nothing diverts attention like a scandal, and Allmendinger's woes and his job with straight-laced Penske Racing dominated the news for the next month.
When Penske finally cut him loose, the free agency watch began. Matt Kenseth had announced in June he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing, and although it was a poorly kept secret he was taking Joey Logano's ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, it wasn't officially confirmed until the end of the summer.
So the industry watched and waited to see if Logano would get Allmendinger's seat over Sam Hornish Jr., a Penske loyalist who has done anything at The Captain's beck and call. When Logano did get the job, and it was revealed the hiring was at Keselowski's urging, it should have been a clear sign that something special had developed between team owner and driver.
Otherwise, how would Keselowski have such pull?
"He's passionate about the sport, and he wants me to be involved, as he has the rest of the team, and I think that we've stepped it up," Penske said. "I'd have to say that Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he's pushed the team in a positive direction, and he's delivering."
Keselowski delivered as soon as the Chase opened, stealing a win from Johnson at Chicagoland and hanging with the five-time champion and Denny Hamlin round-for-round all the way to Homestead. The title fights were at Texas, where Keselowski had to line up for three late restarts, winning the first two but losing to Johnson on the last one to go down seven points headed into Phoenix.
It was one of Johnson's best tracks and a place where Keselowski was unproven. But he was better than Johnson for two-thirds of the race, and then a blown tire sent Johnson into the wall. It put Keselowski in great shape headed into the finale, but not before Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer to trigger a garage-area melee and prove the season-long theme that the sideshows tend to overshadow the actual racing.
Gordon was fined $100,000 and could have been suspended for last week's finale. Even after holding off Bowyer to win Sunday's race, he was dealing with the aftermath of Phoenix.
"It's like our whole season wrapped up in one week," he said. "You can try all you want to move past the moment, but man, it just ate me up inside all week. I just kept going back and forth from being disappointed, being angry, feeling that I had a right. I didn't have a right."
He looked around at his race team, grateful they stood behind him all season and after the Bowyer incident, and grateful they'll be with him next year.
"I think it started in our team meeting before the race, I apologized to those guys for some of the things that transpired that they had to get involved with that wasn't their doing last week, and I put them in that position, and I apologized to them and I thanked them at the same time for having my back," Gordon said. "We've had to have one another's backs because we've all made mistakes this year. And so to be able to celebrate with them in victory lane was very special, very meaningful, and gives a tremendous amount of momentum to go into 2013 with the new race car."
It's all about next season.