Brad Keselowski clinched the NASCAR Sprint Cup in comfortable fashion at the end of a dramatic Ford EcoBoost 400 race in which the title fight between he and Jimmie Johnson swung back and forth.
Johnson’s accident at Phoenix the previous race had allowed Keselowski to come to Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 20 point lead. However, despite starting second – behind initial leader Marcos Ambrose – Keselowski fell back in the opening run of the race, falling behind Johnson 20 laps after the first round of green flag pitstops on lap 76.
Pitstops were an issue – or a source of issues – for Keselowski throughout the race. A slow stop, owing to trouble with the left-rear tyre change, dropped Keselowski away from Johnson after the second stops, the time loss made more serious as the stops were made under the cover of a first caution, brought out by debris on the back straight of the 1.5 mile track.
The second caution of the day – also for debris – flew with just under half the race remaining and the two title rivals’ again fared differently in pit road, though this time the difference was deliberate, Crew Chief Chad Knaus ordering just two new tyres for Johnson’s #48 car, his opposite number in the Keselowski pit – Paul Wolfe – more conservative with four fresh tyres for his charge.
The strategy kept Keselowski in the mid-pack battle, but just taking two tyres, just 12 laps after making a four tyre stop under green as part of a full round of stops for the field, put Johnson in the lead. Projecting the championship result at the time the extra bonus points awarded for winning put Johnson and Keselowski tied on the same number of points, what would have been a sixth win of the year of Johnson breaking the tie putting Johnson on course for a sixth Cup title in seven years.
Suddenly confronted with the very real possibility of their pre-race advantage slipping through the fingers Wolfe and Keselowski made a brave strategy call under the following caution, one of eighth leaders staying out on track while Johnson returned to the pits for enough fuel to mean he could make the end of the race on just a single stop – should the race run caution free for the duration.
From when the racing restarted with 103 laps remaining to the end of the race possession of the title swung away, then back to Keselowski, with the cruellest of twists for the #48 team.
With no option than to stay out and hope for another caution to vindicate their decision not to pit Keselowski ran his Dodge out of fuel before pitting still out of range of making the stop his last of race.
Returning to the track in a lowly 24th place, one lap down on leader Johnson, was a disaster for Keselowki, with the final stops for both men likely – in theory – to maintain a similar, decisive, differential between the two.
Johnson made his stop from the lead on lap 213, but now it was he who would have a miscue changing tyres, his team missing a lugnut on the left-rear tyre, officials pulling Johnson in for a second stop to have the full complement of nuts returned to the wheel. The extra stop gave Keselowski the immediate advantage on track, but the Michigan native was still among those who had to make a final stop, a sequence that would have shuffled the order once again.
However, Johnson would come into the pits once again before the Hendrick Motorsports team pushed the Lowe’s car back to the garage to begin repairs to the drive line in the rear of the car that were ultimately unsuccessful, leaving Johnson with his sixth DNF of the season in 36th position at the checkered flag.
Johnson’s stint in the garage – for the second consecutive race – made the closing 38 laps little more than a coronation for Keselowski, who made his final stop, free of pressure and faultlessly 17 laps from the end. With Johnson dropping down the order the title was Keselowski’s.
Though with the race running caution free without Johnson’s succession of problems the title race may have come to a very different conclusion it is somewhat ironic that Keselowski finished the race in 15th place – the lowest possible finish that would have guaranteed him the title coming into the race.
Aside from Johnson’s stint in the lead following his two tyre stop the fight for the lead, unlike the 2011 finale, and the fight for the championship were largely separate affairs.
Overhauling Ambrose, who inherited the pole when Joey Logano had to drop to the rear for the start, Kyle Busch began a dominant display at the front of the race, leading a total of 191 laps, while fending off attacks from – variously – Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., and Kasey Kahne.
However, all four were among those who, like the champion-to-be, opted to stay on track during the final caution and as all made the two pitstops to get them to the end Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer – the controversial pair for the late race fracas at Phoenix emerged as the top two.
Gordon went onto win from Bowyer claiming Hendick Motorsports’ first win at the track coming in bitter-sweet circumstances as Johnson was up on jackstands. Ryan Newman, who had led early during the exchanges of green flag pitstops, finished third.
Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Truex, Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. completed the top ten, but the main celebrations were done by the man finishing 15th, blowing out the read tyres as he completed the burnout with the nose pushed against the inside wall.
Keselowski’s championship, in just his third full season in the premier series, was Penske Racing’s first success and the fifth for the Dodge as a brand before they step away from NASCAR for 2013, Keselowski and Roger Penske’s operation switching back to Ford for next season having switched to Dodge for the 2003 campaign.