By Jeff Wolfe
When Brad Keselowski came onto the NASCAR Sprint Cup scene in 2008, there weren’t a lot of questions about his talent. The then 23-year-old proved rather quickly that he had a desire to win and didn’t like it if someone got in his way. There were questions however about his tactics, and yes, even tact, as at times he was called “Bad Brad.”
But over the past three years, driving for Roger Penske, Keselowski has gradually answered those questions about being a potential champion. After Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Keselowski won’t need the word “potential” in front of the word “champion” any longer.
The driver of the No. 2 Dodge finished 15th and while he never challenged for the victory in the 267-lap race, he didn’t have to in capturing his first Sprint Cup title. That’s because Jimmie Johnson, the only driver capable of beating Keselowski for the title, experienced major issues for the second straight week.
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon was part of a major storyline for the second straight week too, but for pretty much the opposite reason as in Phoenix. Gordon won Sunday’s race, the 87th of his career and second of the year, leaving Kentucky Speedway (which has only had two races) as the lone track he has not won at on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Gordon took the lead for good with 14 laps remaining when leader Kyle Busch had to pit for fuel. Busch, who did not win a race he led the most laps in for the ninth straight time, led 191 laps and finished fourth.
However, it was Keselowski who finished where all Sprint Cup drivers like to be at the end of the season, No. 1 in the points standings.
“Well, I saw this really cool video that (Baltimore Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis did and, you know, he said in it that you know throughout my whole life I’ve been told my whole life I’m not big enough, not fast enough, not strong enough, I don’t have what it takes and I’ve used that as a chip on my shoulder to carry me through my whole career, and, you know, it took till this year for me to realize that was right,” Keselowski said. “I’m not big enough, not fast enough, not strong enough. Only a team can do that and these guys up here, they make me big enough. They make me fast enough. They make me strong enough to do anything we want to do and it’s because of these guys. I can’t be here without them. I really can’t.”
Keselowski, who was known for his aggressive driving early in his career, knows he couldn’t have won without the support and sometimes patience of team owner Roger Penske. While Penske has been a top IndyCar owner for nearly 40 years where he’s won 12 titles, Keselowski gave him his first Sprint Cup title two years after giving Penske his first Nationwide title. While Penske first fielded a NASCAR team in 1972, he re-entered the series in earnest in 1991 with Rusty Wallace as his driver. Wallace’s second-place finish in the points in 1993 had been Penske’s best finish before this year.
“This guy Keselowski is something special, and for me it’s a lifelong goal when you think about Hendrick, you think about Earnhardt and Childress and Gibbs and just to mention all the guys that have been up there, and we’ve been close but we’ve never delivered,” said Penske, who is 75. “But this guy here delivered it for us. Every week all through the year, gave us this championship. Boy, I’ll tell you, man, I love you.”
Even though Johnson was behind by 20 points to start the day, the five-time champion and driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had every intention of making Keselowski earn the title. After struggling a bit early, he found himself in the lead with 55 laps to go.
But a loose lug nut after what would have been his final pit stop caused him to return to pit road, and Johnson was a lap down in 25th-place. Johnson then smelled what he thought was a burning gear, when a possible leak in his oil line caused his cockpit to fill with smoke and end his day.
“It all unraveled pretty quickly,” Johnson said. “You know, the pit road thing, I was just kind of dealing with it, the first two or three laps I got on the track and trying to think through what was going on. Chad had some optimism left in his voice. I wasn’t sure why or what. Maybe he was just doing a good job of being a cheerleader. But I ran a handful of laps and then I could smell some oil. And when the gear failed, I mean, there was a lot of shaking in the car. I knew it was big and going to be fatal.”
The fact that Johnson was leading when his problems began were not lost on Keselowski, who needed a 15th place finish or better to guarantee himself the title and give Dodge its first title since Richard Petty won the crown in 1975. By the time Johnson had the lead though, a 16th-place would have also clinched it as Busch was guaranteed the bonus point for leading the most laps.
“He’s the best,” said Keselowski, who became the eighth-youngest champion. “He proved here today he was going to win this race and I know that. We were not as good as we wanted to be, I’ll be the first to admit that, but my guys never gave up, we kept working and at the end, we were capable of getting back up enough to where it wouldn’t have mattered if he had won which made me feel a lot better, but my guys did a great job all year long and I’m lucky to have them.”
And any champion will tell you there is at least a little luck involved in winning any championship. Keselowski, who won the title in his 125th start, the fewest since Jeff Gordon won on his 93rd start in 1995, avoided major incident all throughout the ten-race Chase for the Championship, including the now famous Gordon-Clint Bowyer crash happening right in front of him last week, then getting to the finish line after taking a hit from a sliding Kurt Busch on the final lap wreck last week.
While Gordon made plenty of headlines throughout the week for what he admitted was a revenge-filled crash against Bowyer, he was relieved to make some headlines for a different reason Sunday.
“I felt terrible about how I went about it and still regret the way I went about it but you know what, I can’t take it back,” Gordon said about last week. “What we can do is look forward and race guys as hard and clean as we possibly can and, you know, this is a great way to get some positive things going because this year has been real up and down. This is awesome to have my family here in Victory Lane.”
The rest of the top-10 behind Gordon in front of a crowd of 76,000 was Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex, Jr., Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Keselowski will get to celebrate his title at the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards banquet in Las Vegas on November 30. Howie Mandel is due to host the festivites at the Wynn Las Vegas and SPEED will televise the event.
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