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.
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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.
Rather than bolt to the front, he retreated to run fifth while Kyle Busch rocketed to the front. Busch would dominate until the fuel management by Gordon, Bowyer and third-place Ryan Newman consigned him to a disappointing fourth-place finish.
After the first round of pit stops, Keselowski never again appeared in the top five, taking particular care in traffic on restarts after the three caution periods for debris and a minor wall-banger.
Rather that engage in duels, he would find open track where he would be unlikely to drive into someone else’s accident.
The 15th-place finish was his worst in the 10 Cup races. He outdueled Johnson in a one-two finish to start the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway, and they were the primary combatants from that point forward.
The unfailingly confident Keselowski won twice and added six more top-10 finishes while refusing to blink despite the pressure applied by Johnson. A blown tire that sent Johnson into the wall at Phoenix greatly reduced the pressure on Keselowski in the final chapter.
“He’s the best,” Keselowski said of Johnson. “He proved it here [Sunday]” by getting the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to the lead. “He was going to win the damned race, and I know that.
“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.”
Keselowski, who hinted at future Cup stardom with a 2010 Nationwide series title, vowed to build on what he has achieved.
“I feel the best is yet to come,” he said. “I really do. You’re a product of who you surround yourself by, and I’m surrounded by the best.”