- Published on Wednesday, 21 November 2012 14:11
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The fuel strategy that was supposed to carry Jimmie Johnson to a sixth championship instead made a winner of his teammate, Jeff Gordon, who triumphed in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway as Brad Keselowski locked up the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Gordon crossed the finish line 1.028 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer, his nemesis from a week ago at Phoenix, as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet sat forlorn in the garage, Johnson’s title hopes the victim of a pit road mistake and a rare part failure. Ryan Newman ran third, followed by Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle.
Keselowski finished 15th, a lap down, but Johnson’s difficulties took the suspense out of the title fight in the closing laps of the race. Johnson entered the season finale 20 points behind Keselowski, but his 36th-place result cost him second place in the final standings.
The Cup championship was the first for team owner Roger Penske, and the first since 1975 for car maker Dodge, which is leaving Cup racing at the end of the season.
“It means the world -- it really does,” Keselowski said. “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 Penske, crew chief Paul Wolfe, everybody else, the crew guys and my family -- that means so much.””
Bowyer passed Johnson for the second spot in the standings, 39 points behind the first-time champion. Johnson held third, 40 points back; in 11 full seasons of Cup racing, Johnson never has finished lower than sixth.
Gordon made some history of his own. He won for the second time this year and the 87th time in his career, most among active drivers and third-most all-time behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). The victory was Gordon’s first at Homestead and the first for Hendrick Motorsports.
“This is just huge,” said Gordon, who wrecked Bowyer in retaliation last Sunday at Phoenix and drew a $100,000 fine and 25-point penalty for his actions. “Man, it’s been an emotional week and a hard one -- one of the hardest ones I’ve ever gone through, just looking back on my decision. What an unbelievable week. There were so many ups and downs this week, and to be able to end in Victory Lane with just an awesome team effort was just awesome… This is the way you want to win a race, by just going to battle with them and having a good race car and playing it all out really smart.”
Keselowski, who didn’t cover Johnson’s move when the No. 48 topped off the fuel tank on Lap 158, knew he had dodged a bullet. “He was going to win this race, and I know that,” Keselowski said. “We were not as fast as we wanted to be, and we’d be the first to admit that, but my guys never gave up. We kept working, and at the end there we were even capable of getting back up enough to where it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d have won -- which made me feel a lot better.”
For owner Penske, the wait that began before Keselowski was born in 1984 finally is over. Penske Racing, which entered the NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 1972, ended the longest non-championship streak among current ownership. Penske’s best previous finish was second in 1993 with NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rusty Wallace.
To be the best, Keselowski had to beat the best – Johnson. The pair traded the lead of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup five times, the last on Nov. 11 at Phoenix where Keselowski finished sixth and Johnson – the victim of an accident – placed 32nd.
Keselowski’s 15th-place finish in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 was all it took to apply the finishing touches to a stellar championship season. Keselowski’s championship came in his 125th start, the fewest since Jeff Gordon captured his first of four titles in 1995 in 93 starts.
At age 28, Keselowski is the eighth-youngest competitor to win a first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Keselowski previously won the 2010 Nationwide Series title, owner Penske’s first in NASCAR. He joins Bobby Labonte as the only drivers to win both a Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series championship.
After experiencing mechanical problems in two of the first three regular season races, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge won at Bristol Motor Speedway to begin a steady march toward the top 10. Backed by championship crew chief Paul Wolfe, Keselowski won three times during the regular season and entered the Chase seeded fourth.