NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead

Key MomentJeff Gordon was among the drivers who pitted on a quick caution on lap 155. In the end, it resulted in the No. 24 having enough fuel to make it to the finish when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had to pit from the front of the field. Gordon ended the night taking the first win for Hendrick Motorsports at Homestead-Miami Speedway while his teammate Jimmie Johnson sat in his car in the garage, having lost the championship due to a faulty rear end.

In a Nutshell – Kyle Busch leads the most laps for the second straight race, but the racing gods frowned on him for the second time. Due to timing of caution flags, Busch had to pit with 12 laps to go which relinquished the lead to Gordon. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson had a missing lugnut penalty followed by a failed rear gear to put up a pathetic fight in the final race of the season. Brad Keselowski ends up as the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, giving Roger Penske his first ever Cup Series title.

Dramatic Moment – The race itself had no drama at all, so the battle for the championship garnered all of the attention. Johnson’s team had the fuel strategy in place to make the title hunt interesting. They called the five-time champion in for his final pit stop and the wheels figuratively fell off. In reality, it was the rear tire changer leaving a lug nut off of the left rear, resulting in Johnson having to return to pit lane for the changer to affix the fifth lug nut. Shortly after that moment, which all but handed the title to Keselowki, Johnson’s rear gear failed in the No. 48, completely eliminating the team from contention. In fact it eventually cost them the runner-up position as well.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Keselowski is the 2012 Sprint Cup champion. Prior to 2012, Keselowski’s most famous moments in Sprint Cup racing involved flipping Carl Edwards and being flipped by Edwards, and sending a tweet from the backstretch at Daytona. Now he’s the third driver to win a title in his first three seasons of full-time competition and the first driver to win it driving for Roger Penske.

Johnson and his No. 48 team were known as the organization that always came through under pressure, but the past two weeks they were the ones who didn’t execute. In Phoenix, Johnson pushed his car harder than he should have in the middle of the race and it ended up costing him a right front tire and his point lead. This weekend they had put themselves in position to win the race and the title and then proceeded to step on it. The missing lug nut when the car had to wait on gas was a foolish mistake. Fortunately for the tire changer, he was let off of the hook by the rear gear which couldn’t handle the pressure either.

In another impressive display of coordinated race officiating and television production, not a single piece of debris that brought out a caution during the Ford Ecoboost 400 was visible on the television screen of a single viewer. With $1 billion being spent on the television rights to broadcast the Cup Series, you would think someone could get NASCAR to point out the dangerous piece of trash that causes Cup races to be slowed periodically.

Elliott Sadler is never going to be confused with a finisher. For the second season in a row, Sadler came into Phoenix in the middle of the title hunt and left Homestead a mere footnote in the Nationwide Series. Sadler and his No. 2 team came out of the gate in Homestead looking like they were going to do something, qualifying second. The rag went in the air and Sadler proceeded to have a mediocre run, leading three laps before stumbling home to a ninth-place finish. Sadler is a great person and a decent driver, but when the chips are on the table, he has routinely come up short.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the sixth driver in the history of the Nationwide (Busch) Series to win consecutive titles. Truex Jr. was the last driver to pull off the feat in 2004-2005. He moves up to the Cup series next season and will attempt to join Bobby Labonte and Keselowski as the only drivers to win the Nationwide and Cup titles. Stenhouse had to learn how to rein in his emotions early in his career. Although that has paid off well in helping him to two straight titles, it makes him seem almost robotic in his post race interviews. After doing his burnouts and thanking his team on the radio, he answered the questions from ESPN like he had been dowing Ritalin out of his drink bottle all night. Note to Ricky: watch the Keselowski ESPN Sportscenter interview. It is ok to let your emotions out for everyone to see.

In the 2012 Camping World Truck Series, James Buescher showed everyone what he could do if he ran all of the races on the series schedule. He finished third last season after missing the race at Phoenix early in the year. This time around, he won four races and held off the big money of RCR and the blue collar racers from Red Horse Racing. Talk all you want, like some of the twits on the Twitter, about Buescher being the son-in-law of his team owner, the kid can wheel it. Turner has some really talented people in the organization and they are on their way to battling the big guns of the sport, on all levels, for championships.

There have been a lot of post championship interviews on ESPN over the years, but there haven’t been many as enjoyable as Keselowski’s. His opening line of the interview was “I’m buzzed; I’ve been drinking for a while.” He then explained that Roger Penske asked him what he needed to win the title again next year. Keselowski responded with, “I’ve got a list; I’ll give it to you before Christmas.” He finished it up by telling the assembled crowd to cheer because they were on Sportscenter. The entire time he was holding a Miller Lite glass big enough to hold a six-pack and drinking out of it repeatedly. NASCAR has had some pretty sterile champions in their time and they’ve had some real personalities. Keselowski is going to be one of the biggest personalities yet.

Kyle Larson, one of the can’t-miss future stars of NASCAR, ended the championship hunt for Ty Dillon on Friday night during the Camping World Truck Series. Depending on where you sit on the fence about “them racing deals,” Larson either drove in past his talent level or Dillon blocked a faster truck and brought the incident upon himself. The talking heads in the announcing booth were quick to drag Larson over the coals and accuse him of wrecking Dillon, but in the end it was probably an equally shared amount of fault on both sides.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Obviously, Johnson has to head the list. Johnson had a car and a strategy that had him poised to win the race before his team stubbed their toe and then the faulty rear end killed his slim title hopes. In a change of position reminiscent of Tiger Woods, the once invincible No. 48 team has fallen flat the last two seasons. Although 2011 was a year when they were off, this season they were right where they wanted to be, ready to put the title out of reach, and then fell flat two weeks in a row… while the No. 2 team was all but flawless.

After winning the Nationwide title, Stenhouse Jr. jumped into a Cup car to get a start on his 2013 efforts. With just over 100 laps to go, his right front tire suffered a rapid loss of air and his car took a hard shot off of the third turn wall. As the only caution of the race that involved an actual race car, we have to doff our hats in respect to his misfortune.

Although it was hard to tell from television, since they only mentioned him a couple of times all night, Matt Kenseth ran in the top-five for most of the night. He stayed there until the team tried taking two tires on a stop and the handling went away on the car. They didn’t pit to try and make it to the finish which meant they had to pit in the last 15 laps to take on fuel, which resulted in an 18th-place finish. Kenseth was very frustrated that his final run in a Ford ended so far back after the car was so good early.

There is plenty of healthy debate about which female driver in NASCAR is the best. Johanna Long continues to try and build a resume that will tip the scales in her favor, but Joey Logano did his best to keep her from adding a chapter on Saturday night by dumping her off of turn two and causing her to make a hard impact with the inside backstretch wall. Long runs for an underfunded team but continues to put out displays that should make some of the bigger teams take notice and consider giving her a ride. Don’t forget, Long is a winner of the Snowball Derby, which many of the best super late model drivers in the country would like to be able to say.

Larson and Dillon could be included in the Foul Fortune category, but they are both responsible for the fact that their trucks ended up beaten and battered on Friday night. The driver who had the foul twist of fate was Ryan Blaney. Blaney spent the whole evening running around the 10th spot and should have had a finish in that general area before he was caught up in the Larson/Dillon and ended up taking an incredibly hard shot into the outside turn four wall.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Depending on your opinion of the events that transpired at Phoenix, Gordon very well could be the recipient of this award. Many people were of the opinion that Gordon should have been parked for this race, which would have prevented him from scoring his second win of the season and the 87th of his career.

Greg Biffle started the race at the back of the pack thanks to his Friday incident with Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. He went a lap down early in the race and had to use a Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap. He struggled his way to the low teens and then pitted when the caution flew for Stenhouse’s wreck. As a result he was able to run to the finish one his final pit stop and finished with a top-10 run.

Similar to Biffle, although not as bad early in the evening, Ryan Newman raced in the upper teens and high single digits for the entire night but was a long way from a top-five car. Thanks to the pit strategy late in the event and a final good call by Matt Borland, Newman ended up coming home in the third spot.

Sam Hornish Jr. had a pretty good weekend going at the start of the Nationwide Series race. It was announced he’d be running full-time in the No. 12 next season in the Nationwide Series and then qualified fourth. Hornish was running well for the first 128 laps of the race before a cut tire forced him to the pit road. Hornish caught the problem before the tire went completely down. He made it to the pits and his crew changed the tire, getting him back out into competition. The rest of the field cycled through green flag stops so Hornish ended up not being down a lap when the caution flew for debris on lap 175. In the end, Hornish finished fourth and wrapped up the fourth spot in the season’s final point standings.

Several drivers were impacted by the melee at the end of the Truck race, but one driver who weaved his way through the mess and then had a great run over the green-white-checkered finish was Miguel Paludo. After running in the teens most of the day, Paludo took advantage of the last melee and closing laps to score a top-five finish.

Worth Noting

  • Keselowski won his first Cup Series title in his third season. His previous best point finish was fifth last season.
  • In the modern era, the only other drivers to win a title within their first three years of competing full-time in the series were Dale Earnhardt in his second year, and Gordon in his third.
  • It took Keselowski 125 starts to win his first title. That is the fewest since Gordon took 93.
  • Keselowski scored two wins, three top fives and eight top 10s in the Chase in 2012.
  • For the 2012 season, Keselowski scored five wins, 13 top fives and 23 top 10s.
  • This is the first Cup Series championship for Roger Penske. He has been fielding cars in NASCAR since 1972.
  • This is the fifth title for Dodge. The previous four were David Pearson (1966), Bobby Isaac (1970) and Richard Petty (1974 and 1975).
  • Paul Wolfe is the first crew chief to win the title in Nationwide and Cup series.
  • Gordon’s win is his 87th of his career in 689 starts.
  • This was Gordon’s first win at Homestead. The only track on the current Cup schedule where he does not have a win is Kentucky. This is also Hendrick Motorsports first win at Homestead.
  • Clint Bowyer‘s runner-up finish was his fourth top-two finish of the season.
  • Newman’s third-place finish was his second top-three finish of the season.
  • The top-10 finishers at Homestead on Sunday evening drove five Chevrolets, three Toyotas, and two Fords.
  • Stenhouse Jr. is a back-to-back champion in the Nationwide series. He is the sixth driver to pull off the feat. The previous five were: Sam Ard (1983-1984), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy Lajoie (1996-97), Earnhardt Jr. (1998-1999) and Truex Jr. (2004-2005).
  • Stenhouse Jr. finished the 2012 season with a series-high six wins, 19 top fives, and 26 top 10s.
  • This is Roush Fenway’s fourth Nationwide Series title. This is also Ford’s fourth title in the Nationwide Series.
  • Saturday’s Nationwide victory for Regan Smith was his first-ever in the series.
  • Buescher is the second-youngest Truck Series champion, and the 12th driver in the history of the series to win the title.
  • The win by Cale Gale on Friday night was his first in 32 career starts in the Camping World Truck Series.
  • Gale was the 16th different winner and ninth first-time winner in the series this season, both records for the Trucks.

What’s the Points?

Keselowski is the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion. He officially ends the season with 2,400 points. That total would have left Keselowski third by three points in last season’s points race. Thanks to Johnson’s difficulties, Bowyer was able to take second place by one point with 2,361 points. For all of the conspiracy theorists out there, Bowyer would not have made up 39 points had he not been taken out by Gordon at Phoenix so put away the tin foil hats, Keselowski is the champ with no asterisk.

Johnson avoided being plagued with the runner-up jinx in 2013 by dropping to third in the final standings thanks to his rear end failure. Kasey Kahne finished his first season in Hendrick equipment in the fourth spot in points, while Greg Biffle scratched and clawed his way to a top-five finish in the points.

Hamlin’s title hopes went south at Martinsville and, despite a good finish at Phoenix, he ended the season sitting in the sixth place in points. Kenseth rode his lame duck status all of the way to a seventh-place point finish, while Harvick rode an eighth-place finish at Homestead to an eighth-place finish in the points. Tony Stewart capped off his unimpressive Chase with a uninspiring 17th-place finish which brought him home ninth in the final point standings. Gordon’s win was a feel good story for Gordon fans but it didn’t pull him higher than 10th in the final standings. On the plus side, Gordon and Ingrid will get a free trip to Vegas.

The two drivers who get to take home the nice parting gifts without having to give a lame speech thanking all of their sponsors are Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Truex goes another year without a win while his teammate Bowyer visited Victory Lane three times. Earnhardt made the most headlines outside of the car this season– and that is why he’s forgiven for being so far down in points since he missed two races during the final 10.

Kyle Busch finishes the season with the most points among the non-Chasers and heads into 2013 with a new teammate and yet another, different attitude. Perhaps going a season without winning in Nationwide or Trucks will give him a hunger to carry him to the title, or he’ll go back to running a lot of support series races to continue having some additional information to give to his Cup team.

Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): NASCAR put the Chase into place so that their would be barn burning point races down to the wire that would enthrall the fans and get them to tune into racing instead of football. Apparently the drivers didn’t get the memo this year. After last season’s barn burner, this year the two horse race didn’t even make it to the last 75 laps. Kyle Busch ran away with most of the race, then it turned into a fuel mileage deal while Keselowski rode around in the teens for the last 25 or so laps, knowing that he was the champ and without a chance at winning the race. The end result is all of the artificial excitement in the world doesn’t add up to anything if there isn’t any real suspense or competition.

Keselowski gave us a really great post-race interview and followed it up with some truly genuine fun on Sportscenter, but that was all there was to talk about during the race. Two debris cautions with nothing shown on TV, three on-track passes for the lead and 85% of the television time focused on the two cars in the title hunt when there really wasn’t anything there to watch and it all adds up to a real snoozer. We’ll give it two warm cans of Miller Lite and one of those is just for the awesome beer glass that Kes was lugging around after the race.

Next Up: 97 days from now, we get to see the 2013 cars officially debut in competition during the Daytona 500. Here’s hoping that the competition is better, the drivers compete with a sense of urgency for every lap, and the leaders of the sport stay out of the way and let the racing take care of itself.

Thank you to all of you who take the time to read and especially to write every week. It is truly enjoyable to know that so many people take the time out of their day to read and enjoy this column. I am truly thankful during this Thanksgiving season for all of you. I hope that you have a safe, happy, and blessed Thanksgiving and Christmas season. We’ll see you in 2013.

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