Vito Pugliese · Wednesday November 7, 2012
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The 2012 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship is setting up to read a bit like Tuesday night’s election results. With two races to go, it’s down to Phoenix (Ohio) and Homestead (which actually is in Florida) for Brad Keselowski to pull this one out in the 11th hour. Can the challenger (or Charger… since it’s not Nationwide) defeat the incumbent from four years ago to ascend to the highest motorsports seat in the land?
I won’t bore you with lap by lap or county by county breakdowns, but the path that each of them took to get here is parallel to the two men who squared off Tuesday night. Keselowski hails from Michigan originally, along with his father Bob, a very successful competitor in the ARCA and NASCAR Truck Series. Mitt Romney was born in Michigan, his father a former Governor of the state, while the younger Romney went on to be Governor of Massachusetts.
Jimmie Johnson comes from California, a perennial blue state, and despite winning the most races (popular vote) and championships (electoral college) over the past four years, suddenly seemed vulnerable a few weeks ago. The No. 48 team had seemed to lose a bit of its mojo this season, scrambling until just before Chase/election time. Obama, certainly knows how that one feels.
Also of interest here is that Keselowski drives a Dodge. It’s a brand a bit beleaguered in recent years that seemingly lost its way, such that after being in control of only one house (the Nationwide Series) and having one Cup team, is leaving NASCAR at the end of 2012 ala Romney’s final Presidential bid. Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, however, was most notably bailed out and saved in 2009 by a stroke of Barack Obama’s pen.
So who’s got the edge? Keselowski got out of the gate quickly with wins in Chicago (ironically) and Johnson’s ironclad territory of Dover (Joe Biden was the Senator from Delaware). Romney got a couple of quick wins off the bat as well, with a convincing first debate performance, as well as a rousing comedy bit at the Al Smith Dinner. It looked like the Penske Dodge was possibly going to cruise to its first ever Sprint Cup title when, as fate would have it, Jimmie Johnson lost it and backed his car into the wall at Kansas.
It was the perfect storm. The No. 2 was having a top-10 day, cruising along while their chief competitor just shorted up the Lowe’s Chevrolet by about two feet. Sure, this moment was it. There is no way you can trail with that much damage and baggage in the closing laps and days before the final decision, then still pull it out.
But no one counted on what happened next. Johnson’s ground game in the pits is the best in the sport, and after (hanging) Chad Knaus started to examine the exit polling data provided by the battered machine, he began to direct the steps of his people to repair the damage and get the No. 48 back into contention. David Axelrod, Hillary Cutter, and Obama’s campaign team rolled into one, Knaus knew the right moves and the “target areas” to get this car capable of a miracle comeback. Somehow, someway, with all of the data and common consensus against him, Jimmie Johnson took a car that usually would be junk to a ninth-place finish at Kansas – one behind Brad Keselowski.
Martinsville was next to follow in Virginia. Keselowski had not fared well there in his previous starts, and Johnson had won here in the Fall of 2008 – just as had Barack Obama. It was the last time a Hendrick car had visited Victory Lane at the half-mile paperclip, despite a tight race in the spring where Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon were sent spinning by an errant Clint Bowyer – a man who, at this stage of the game, 36 points out is this year’s Chase version of Gary Johnson. Martinsville is also the site of the 2004 plane crash, one which claimed the lives of John Hendrick and his twin daughters along with Ricky Hendrick, Rick Hendrick’s son.
Johnson won the pole, led the most laps, and walked away with all 48 electoral points. It was a maximum honor to lives lost, a crucial turning point that makes the path for Romney… err, Keselowski rather difficult to get to the Promised Land of Sprint Cup title trophies.
Battered and bruised, the Republican challenger made what amounted to a last NASCAR stand at Texas. It’s a track that’s traditionally red state country, but the Blue Oval dominated here in April when Greg Biffle turned what is usually a long race into an agonizing lapfest, walking away to a 3.235-second victory over Johnson. This time, however, Biffle was a factor late in the race for the wrong reasons; he brought out an untimely caution for Brad Keselowski, leading to allegations of restart fraud and acceleration suppression by both Johnson and Kyle Busch.
Keselowski’s two tires, however, were no match once a green-white-checkered was ordered after Biffle brushed the wall exiting Turn 4, spooking Carl Edwards to turn left directly into elder statesman Mark Martin, sending him spinning through the infield grass. Keselowski was despondent at first, telling his team, “not much you can do when you’re constantly handed these damn things,” but was gracious in defeat, offering his congratulations and concession to Johnson in Victory Lane amid the fire, cowboy hats, and wheelguns.
Well… I guess they probably don’t have cowboy hats in Chicago. That one’s probably a bit of a stretch.
With two states left to count, however, Keselowski is running out of options. He needs to run the table on Johnson, and decisively, for the improbable to fall his way. These are two tracks that Johnson has carried easily in the past, though at Homestead he usually just shows up and rides around trying to finish 16th so he can claim his crown.
This time, however, the five-time champ won’t be able to, barring any disastrous missteps by the No. 2 team in the desert. From the outset, it looks like it’s going to be a replay of a previous decision – in 2011, it went down to the last lap between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. Whoever won the race won the title.
In 2004, it was down to Ohio and whoever won that race won the presidency.
While the race ended a bit abruptly late Tuesday night, it was not quite the nail-biter that it was in 2004. If Brad Keselowski can eke out a few extra electorals over Jimmie Johnson this weekend, we may have a late night ahead of us next Sunday in Homestead. Karl Rove will be out there, sorting through results and making his case the crowning of Johnson is a bit premature.
If not, the re-election of Jimmie Johnson as Sprint Cup Champion for 2012 seems almost inevitable.
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