19 November 2012
'The best is yet to come', promises Keselowski
Keselowski went into the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix neck-and-neck with Jimmie Johnson, but a cut tyre on the #48 proved costly for Johnson and put Keselowski 20 points ahead coming into this weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It sounded a lot, but the race proved closer than expected with Johnson on course for a win and Keselowski struggling to stay in the top 15 that he needed to in order to ensure he clinched the title.
Keselowski insisted he'd never been nervous the entire weekend, however: "I don't feel like there was a part before the race where I was stressed out," he said. "There were some doubts at that moment when that whole cycle was going through, and you just don't know who's on what strategy. I don't know, I'm driving a car, and I'm listening to [the team radio], and I can hear their voice and their voice wasn't real confident, I can tell you that."
Crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted that he'd been nervous enough for the both of them during that stage of the race.
"It wasn't going to be easy, and we weren't in the best situation we wanted to be in," he said. "I wish we had a little more speed in our car tonight. I thought we would have. But at the same time I think we were just being smart. It wasn't a great feeling, I can tell you that. It definitely wasn't."
Johnson ducked into the pits under what proved to be the final caution of the day, which put him on a fuel conservation strategy that left him needing one less pit stop than Keselowski from that stage of the race. Johnson's team mate Jeff Gordon did the same, and ended up winning the race - and Wolfe admitted that it had been the right call, and that he and the Penske team had missed it.
"It was tough. I didn't realize actually those guys were going to give up all that track position and come pit. When they all came and we didn't, it definitely put us in a situation," he said, adding that he'd expected the field to be levelled by further cautions that never materialised.
In the end, it was a moot point: a dropped lugnut on the #48's final pit stop pretty much put an end to Johnson's dwindling title hopes, and ten laps later a drive line failure put the car in the garage for the rest of the race. Keselowski's title was secured at that moment regardless of what happened. Even so, the driver was determined to get back to 15th place by the chequered flag, to prove a point to the detractors.
"I'm so thankful that we drove back to 15th so that I don't have to hear for the rest of my life about how if the #48 had not had them problems he'd have won the championship," Keselowski agreed.
"Brad came over the radio and asked what position we were in and I told my engineers up on the box," confirmed Wolfe. "I said, 'You know what he's thinking? He's thinking he wants to finish 15th because at that point it didn't matter what happened to the #48.' And that just shows the dedication and what this means to him. Sure enough, it wasn't but a few laps later when he came over the radio and said that.
"We just think a lot alike," Wolfe added, revealed the secret of a championship-winning driver/crew chief partnership. "I knew what he was thinking at that point. I think that as bad as we ran tonight that that made it more special that we were still able to finish 15th regardless of what happened to the #48."
Of course, like a true racer, anything less than an outright win was an unwelcome compromise for Keselowski no matter how necessary. "I wanted to win the race, absolutely. I was just hoping that the race would play out to give us an opportunity to do so. Obviously it didn't, but I wanted to win the race the whole time.
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