Brad Keselowski, a scrappy 28-year-old driver who barged into Cup ranks in 2010 with a chip on his shoulder, became the first NASCAR Sprint Cup champion since 2004 not named Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart.
The first-time champion on Sunday overshadowed Jeff Gordon’s 87th career victory with a judicious 15th-place cruise in the Ford EcoBoost 400 to affirm his arrival in the sport’s lead pack.
In doing so, Keselowski also staked a pillar of the automotive world, Roger Penske, to his first Sprint Cup title to go with 12 IndyCar championships, 15 Indianapolis 500 victories and a Daytona 500 triumph.
Keselowski arrived at Homestead-Miami speedway needing only to finish 15th to secure his 20-point Chase for the Cup advantage. That’s precisely where he finished in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.
But that had become irrelevant after Johnson, the only remaining challenger, had what shaped up as a potential victory foiled first by a botched pit stop and, moments later, by fluid leaking from a broken drive line.
He coasted into the pits and out of the race and the title fight on Lap 224 of 267 around the 1.5-mile oval. Keselowski didn’t need to be told.
“I saw him on the [track] apron, and I knew something was wrong based on the speed he was traveling … And that was that,” said Keselowski, who from the beginning shelved characteristic aggression and risk-taking for a prudent and protective approach.
Johnson, who said he was “eerily” relaxed all week, took some comfort in having done all he could do until the gear failure.
“It did unravel pretty quick,” he said. “We were in position and putting the pressure on the ‘2’ car like we needed to. But when the gear failed, there was a lot of shaking in the car. I knew it was big.”
Before his exit, Johnson raced ahead of Gordon and on the same fuel strategy as his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who rode the tactics to a one-second victory over rival/combatant Clint Bowyer.
Not that money is an issue, but NASCAR fined Gordon $100,000 for intentionally crashing Bowyer last week at Phoenix after Bowyer had bumped him and cut a tire to ruin his day. Gordon’s victory Sunday was worth $334,161.
Gordon, a four-time champion who walks with stock-car racing legends reminded the world that he’s still a winner with no plans to depart soon.
“Can you believe that?” asked a joyful Gordon, whose most recent of four titles came in 2001 at age 30. He admitted the episode tormented him through “one of the hardest emotional weeks I’ve ever gone through. It just ate me up.”
The crash with Bowyer also caught up and infuriated Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. “There was one restart today where I had Joey and Clint and Aric right there surrounding me,” Gordon said. “I had to race with Clint a couple times and there were no issues.”
Bowyer claimed to be “frustrated and bummed out” over finishing runner-up, especially to Gordon. But he seemed back to his typical loquacious self. Vaulting past Johnson into second in 2012 Cup points certainly factored into that.
Keselowski, a third-generation driver whose father won a 1989 championship in the Midwest-based ARCA series, launched the final chapter of his championship saga from the front row.