Johnson Falters, Again, And Keselowski Cruises To Championship

Brad Keselowski (right) accepts congratulations from NASCAR CEO Brain France at Homestead after Keselowski won his first career Sprint Cup championship.

It might not have been a dramatic, exciting finish to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season – hardly – and neither was the tussle for the championship.

What could have been, and for some a much anticipated, duel between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson evolved into virtual no-contest.

Johnson, who came into the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead seeking his sixth career championship, saw his hopes go up in smoke, literally, when his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet suffered a burnt rear end.

He sat out the final 34 laps of the race and finished 36th.

He was 20 points behind Keselowski when the race began, but when it was over, he dropped to third place in the standings, one position behind Clint Bowyer – who overtook Johnson with his runnerup finish at Homestead.

Keselowski avoided any such problems. Instead, he cruised to a 15th-place finish – which brought him the title regardless of what Johnson did – to win the first title of his career

He accomplished the feat in 125 Sprint Cup starts, second only to Jeff Gordon, who won his initial championship in 93 starts.

Speaking of Gordon, he made the race more palatable for Hendrick by taking his first victory at Homestead and the 87th of his career, third on NASCAR’s all-time list.

Keselowski, 28, claimed the championship in only his third full season in Cup competition, which ties him with Gordon, who won in 1995. Dale Earnhardt, in his second year in 1980, earned a championship faster than any other driver in NASCAR history.

If the Homestead race was relatively devoid of drama, it had more than its share of interesting, if not fascinating, story lines, along with some irony.

Jeff Gordon gets a kiss from wife Ingrid after he won the Ford Ecoboost 400 for his first win at Homestead and for the 87th time in his career.

For example, Keselowski brought veteran team owner Roger Penske, who has been part of NASCAR for 23 years, his first stock car championship.

It seems hard to believe, given that Penske has won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 23 championships in several forms of motorsports.

The title was the first for Penske and, perhaps, the last for Dodge. Ironically, the manufacturer announced earlier this season that it would end its NASCAR participation after the 2012 season.

Dodge, once a stalwart in competition, had not won a title since 1975 when Richard Petty, by far its marquee driver, won what was then known as the Winston Cup championship.

In a Dodge in ‘75, Petty won 13 races and had 21 top-five runs in 30 races. He won the title by a whopping 722 points ahead of Dave Marcis, who also drove a Dodge.

Interestingly, Penske was a NASCAR car owner in 1975, although his full-time participation wouldn’t begin until a few years afterward.

Penske fielded – of all things – an American Motors Matador, which Bobby Allison drove to three victories.

In 1975, Keselowski was nine years before being born. After a fledgling 17 Cup starts with four different team owners from 2008-2009 – Keselowski won with James Finch in ’09 – the driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., hooked up with Penske in 2010.

Keselowski won the Nationwide Series title that year which gave Penske his first NASCAR title of any kind.

And in 2011, Keselowski gave strong notice that his star was on the rise with three wins and a fifth place in the final point standings.

This year Keselowski made good on that notice. He won five races and was No. 1 in points for five of the eight weeks leading to Homestead.

He surged into the lead after uncharacteristic misfortunes struck Johnson.

After consecutive wins at Martinsville and Texas, Johnson crashed at Phoenix, which helped Keselowski enter Homestead with a double-digit points lead.

Certainly that helped his cause, but Keselowski felt supremely confident he could pull it off.

“I felt good about where we were coming into this race, but you never know,” Keselowski said. “Still I knew we could do it.

“I’ve got the best team in racing and I’m just so thrilled to be a part of it. From the top down, Roger, Paul Wolfe (crew chief), everybody else, the crew guys and my family, that means so much.

“I couldn’t do it without the support of everybody on the team. They are why I was so confident and they deserve the credit more than I do.”

Johnson, who held a seven-point lead over Keselowski until his crash at Phoenix cost him 13 points, could only wonder what might have been if a pit error (again, uncharacteristic for his team) and mechanical failure had not decided his fate.

As a result, Keselowski needed to finish only 15th to win the title, which, of course, he did.

“I said at the beginning of the week 15th isn’t a lay‑up, and I certainly had him in position,” said Johnson, who, near the end of the race, had positioned himself to take the lead by fuel mileage strategy. “He made it really interesting there at the end of this thing.

“If we could have not had the mistake on pit road and then the gear failure at the end . . . Didn’t really catch exactly what happened but I know there was oil under the back of the car.

“So again, disappointing, and we were right there in position and putting pressure on like we needed to.     “But I have a lot to be proud of this year and so does this race team, and I need to thank everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.”

Although the winner of a Homestead race often gets less notice than the new champion, Gordon received due attention for his victory because he won over Bowyer, whom he deliberately wrecked a week earlier in Phoenix.

That incident prompted a scuffle between the Bowyer and Gordon crews and resulted in fines, the loss of points and probation for Gordon.

“I knew we had a great race car going into the race,” Gordon said. “At times I didn’t think we had a winning car, but you know what, we played the strategy perfectly. This is a great way for us to end this season.

“Last week, the thing that I regret and the thing that I messed up on is that I allowed my anger and my emotions to put me in a position to make a bad choice.

“I felt like that Clint needed to be dealt with, but that wasn’t the right way to go about it, certainly not the right time. And what I hate most about it is that other guys were involved with it and it affected their day.”

Bowyer’s second-place run was his 10th among the top five, which also includes three wins in what has been a stellar first season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Bowyer finished second in the championship race, 39 points behind Keselowski and one point – along with several thousand dollars – ahead of Johnson.

Many fans welcome Keselowski’s championship for several reasons: They were tired of Johnson’s championship dominance; they disliked his personality and, in some cases, disdained his team’s perceived propensity for bending the rules.

But there is also the feeling that Keselowski brings a breath of fresh air into NASCAR. He’s new, he’s outspoken and has clearly displayed racing talent. This could well be the first of many titles.

Keselowski likely prefers to take it all a step at a time, and for good reason.

“It’s that commitment that’s taken me from ground level to get up to here,” Keselowski said of his determination to succeed.  “I don’t know, maybe here is where I’ll top out or maybe I’ll fall down.

“I want to be the best and that’s what makes it so tough, but that’s what also makes it so great and such an accomplishment.  When you do have success you know all those other guys don’t want to see you be successful.

“To to some extent, to be the best is a validation of everything you’re doing and why participate in a sport.”


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