It all comes down to this. And by it, I’m referring to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. By this, I’m talking about Sunday’s final race of the season, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Brad Keselowski heads into the season finale as the points leader with a 20-point lead over second-place driver Jimmie Johnson. There will actually be 43 drivers in the race, but with all others eliminated from championship contention, the primary focus will be on Keselowski and Johnson.
A championship for Keselowski would be his first in only his third season of full-time competition at the Sprint Cup level. It’s his second year at the Cup level with Paul Wolfe as his crew chief. Despite the pairing of Keselowski and Wolfe claiming the 2010 Nationwide Series championship, this is new territory for the duo. After all, this is Sprint Cup we’re talking about here, not Nationwide.
On the other hand, this is old hat for Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. After all, Johnson’s already a five-time champion with more titles than any other current Cup driver and third most all-time, trailing only NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven apiece. Knaus has been atop Johnson’s No. 48 pit box for all five. These two have been together for awhile.
Johnson may be more experienced at racing for Sprint Cup champion’s trophies, but Keselowski still has a leg up in this situation. As I mentioned before, he’s heading into the race with a 20-point cushion. Keselowski pretty much controls his own destiny.
“I just know if I run well enough it (where Johnson is running) doesn’t matter,” Keselowski said.
Johnson doesn’t have that luxury. Even if he were to win the race after leading the most laps, he still has to count on help from Keselowski in the form of a serious stumble if he’s to win his sixth championship in seven years.
“I knew coming into this weekend I was going to have a big hill to climb with the No. 2 car and the points lead that they have,” Johnson said. “They have done their part and have been very competitive all weekend long. We will just have to see how that race goes tomorrow. I feel we have made our car a lot better through the course of the weekend. The last two race runs we had were pretty strong and in the mix.”
While Keselowski’s not counting on helping Johnson, he realizes that you know what happens, sort of like the situation Johnson found himself in last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway when he suffered a tire issue that sent his car into the wall and then to the garage for repairs. As a matter-of-fact, Johnson headed into last weekend’s race as the points leader with a seven-point edge over Keselowski. The tire issue was, essentially, a 27 points swing, moving Johnson from a leader by seven points to trailing by 20.
Such a point swing in the opposite direction would hand the title to Johnson, and Keselowski realizes that he could possibly experience a similar situation to that of Johnson a week ago.
“Obviously, there’s no guarantees,” Keselowski said after the race at Phoenix. “The same thing could happen to us next week, and Jimmie could take back over.”
Keselowski became the “unofficial” pole sitter of Sunday’s race on Saturday morning when the acutal pole sitter, Joey Logano, got caught up in a practice crash and was relegated to a backup car and a start in the back. That moves the inside line, in which Keselowski was set to lineup second, up, moving Keselowski into the inside front row position. That’ll give Keselowski the perfect opportunity to lead a lap and collect a bonus point right off the bat. But Johnson’s looking at it as an opportunity for that misfortune he’ll need Keselowski to experience to hit.
“I hope he (Keselowski) tries really, really, really hard to lead that first lap,” Johnson said. “I know (Marcos) Ambrose next to him is going to try hard too. That could be good for me.”
Keselowski may have a fairly sizable cushion heading into the final race of the year, but as Johnson showed last week, anything can happen, so it’s not a done deal yet.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR
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