That’s the feeling as two competitors – one a relative newcomer, the other a five-time champion – settle the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Brad Keselowski’s championship math is simple as he carries a 20-point lead into the season finale: a finish of 15th or better; or 16th and at least one lap led; or 17th and the most laps led, even if Jimmie Johnson wins and leads the most laps.
That, however, might be easier said than done as Keselowski has a single top-15 finish – 13th in 2010 – and three finishes of 20th or worse in four previous starts at Homestead. So far, he’s the only Chase qualifier to have finished each Chase race this year 11th or better. But he’s cognizant that the misfortune – tire failure and accident – that befell Johnson at Phoenix could lurk just around any one of Homestead’s 1,068 corners.
“Certainly if you have the choice you always want to be in the lead of the points, especially in the closing races, so I’m thankful for that,” Keselowski said. “But I also know that the troubles that they had are the same troubles that we could have next week, and so you try not to take anything for granted.”
Johnson obviously is all in at one of just five tracks where he’s without a NASCAR Sprint Cup victory.
“We typically haven’t had to have that mentality going into this race, but we have shown we can race for the win,” said Johnson, whose Homestead Driver Rating is 95.2, fourth-best among Chase contenders. “We have nothing to lose and can gamble and take chances. Brad [Keselowski] doesn’t have that luxury. This isn’t over.”
Storylines? They’re abundant.
Twenty-eight-year-old Keselowski bids to become the series’ first new champion since 2006, going from dark horse contender to championship controller over NASCAR’s nine-race post season.
Johnson, down but certainly not out, has done this before. In 2010, trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points (about four under the current system), he finished second at the 1.5-mile South Florida track to vanquish his rival.
Then there’s the question of which team has the edge on the pit box. Five-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus is arguably the brightest mind of the current era. But Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s crew chief, figuratively has turned lead into gold with one strategic call after another to put his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge team within one race of a title.
Finally, it’s owner vs. owner and manufacturer against manufacturer.
Roger Penske has few peers in open-wheel racing, winning the Indianapolis 500 15 times with a hall of fame lineup of drivers. But despite 1,571 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts and 76 victories, Penske never has won the sport’s biggest prize. Penske finished second in 1993 when NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rusty Wallace won 10 races. Keselowski has gifted his owner with his only NASCAR title to date, the 2010 Nationwide Series championship.
On the opposite side of the ledger is Hendrick Motorsports and owner Rick Hendrick. HMS has won 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup titles with Johnson (five), Jeff Gordon (four) and Terry Labonte. The organization captured its 200th victory earlier this year at Darlington Raceway and qualified each of its four drivers – Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne – for this year’s Chase.
Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet is the standard-bearer for the series’ dominant manufacturer. Johnson’s 60th victory Nov. 4 at Texas Motor Speedway was the brand’s 700th. Chevrolet won its 36th manufacturer title in 2012, most by any nameplate.
Conversely, this week’s Homestead race will signal farewell – for now anyway – for the Dodges wheeled by Keselowski. Dodge won its first race in 1953 with Lee Petty, its last driver championship in 1975 with Richard Petty and rejoined the series with manufacturer-supported teams in 2001. Keselowski’s five 2012 victories bring Dodge’s win total to 217.