Brad Keselowski entered Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 20-point lead in NASCAR’s Chase standings.
Problem was, his competition came in the form of a five-time champion.
Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team enjoyed a reign that lasted from 2006-10, and they won the championship in every way imaginable in that time: Going away, coming from behind, with consistency and utilizing a glut of wins.
So by no means had anyone conceded the 2012 edition of the sport’s playoff to Keselowski’s upstart No. 2 Penske Racing outfit. Yet, as Championship Week in South Florida drew on, it appeared that even in the face of Johnson’s strategically-placed smack talk, the Michigan native remained focused on the task at hand, which was to finish 15th or better in the finale.
That he did — in fact, he finished 15th — in the 400-miler. But not before some mid-race curveballs found Johnson on the brink of overtaking Keselowski.
The architect of Johnson’s five titles, crew chief Chad Knaus, employed a pit scheme that would allow the No. 48 team to make one less stop than the incumbent No. 2 bunch. And if the race were to play out caution-free, Keselowski may have been stuck one lap down — with no guarantee of finishing worse than 15th, but on thin ice, nonetheless.
The story began to play out with 61 laps remaining when Keselowski ran out of fuel on his way to pit road for a scheduled stop. Though all went well once in his pit box, the time lost dropped him to 24th, one lap down to Johnson, who was leading.
However, just 10 laps later Johnson’s regularly-scheduled green flag pit stop threw the favor back in Keselowski’s court. A missing lug nut by the No. 48 crew precipitated a penalty that knocked the Hendrick team one lap down, in 25th.
The coup de grace occurred a handful of laps later, when a rear-gear failure on Johnson’s Chevy relegated it to the garage and, ultimately, a 32nd-place finish.
“I knew it was big,” Johnson said of when his car started leaking fluid. “We were in the cat bird’s seat. We were in position to win the race. We were ahead of the 24 (Jeff Gordon) and the 24 won the race.”
From there, Keselowski cruised while Gordon, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer vied for the race win. Gordon came out the victor — outrunning his newly minted rival Bowyer — scoring career Cup win No. 87.
Bowyer’s runner-up finish vaulted him past Johnson in the final championship tally, but a distant 39 points behind Keselowski.
For team owner Roger Penske, the title was a rare first in an illustrious motorsports career. For all the success he has achieved in open-wheel racing (12 IndyCar championships, 15 Indianapolis 500 wins), he had yet to win a title in NASCAR’s premier series.
“I feel amazed that I’ve been able to achieve this in racing,” Penske said. “I’ve lauded the people that have been on that (championship) stage for so many years and to be able to join this elite group and say that I’m a champion in NASCAR means a lot.”
Penske’s Cup program received its catalyst in the form of Keselowski in 2010, when he ran his first full season on the premier level. A natural leader, Keselowski had a vision to take the organization from race-winner to titlist. The team he helped put together persevered through a rough initial season. That’s when Keselowski’s Nationwide Series crew chief, Paul Wolfe, was asked to step up.
Having won the 2010 Nationwide title together, driver and crew chief spearheaded a three-win Cup campaign in 2011 and came out like gangbusters in 2012, winning five races en route to their second NASCAR championship in three years.
Even more challenging for the duo over the course of the Chase was knowing that Penske’s affiliation with manufacturer Dodge ended when the checkered flag fell in Homestead. Making the switch to Ford in the offseason and with Dodge on its way out of the sport altogether, many questioned how the No. 2 team, with no real help in the form of a teammate, would outlast a rival as battle-hardened as Johnson’s No. 48 squad.
The answer, as Keselowski stressed afterward, was through the strength of team and the attitude with which he approached the task.
“Throughout my whole life I’ve been told I’m not big enough, not fast enough, not strong enough and I don’t have what it takes,” Keselowski said. “I’ve used that as a chip on my shoulder to carry me through my whole career. It took until this year for me to realize that that was right, man, they were right: I’m not big enough, fast enough, strong enough.
“No person is. Only a team can do that.”
With a team that is now not only battle-tested, but title-winning, a driver and crew chief in their respective primes, and a new home at Ford Racing awaiting in 2013, the Penske organization can now look forward to many more nights like Sunday’s celebration in South Beach.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro