It really was pretty much a done deal heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, at least as far as the 2012 NASCAR
Sprint Cup champion was concerned.
After all, Brad Keselowski went into the Ford EcoBoost 400 with 20 points over Johnson in the standings. Even if Johnson won the race outright and led the most laps, Keselowski would still be crowned champion if he finished 15th or above. Surely it couldn't go wrong? And yet the presence of Keselowski's team owner Roger Penske was a visible reminder of how these things can and indeed do go off the rails: Penske's IndyCar
driver Will Power went into the final race of the IndyCar
season in the lead, but crashed out and lost the title to Ryan Hunter-Reay. Written across Penske's face was the unspoken fear: "Not again. Please, not again."
It started well enough for the #2 Penske Racing team. After polesitter Joey Logano crashed in Saturday practice, Keselowski was bumped from third place on the grid to the front row alongside Marcos Ambrose, who led the field to the green flag shortly before 3.30pm Florida time on Sunday afternoon, for the 36th and last race of the 2012 Cup season.
The start proved the first indication that perhaps all was not entirely well with Keselowski's car this afternoon after all: Ambrose got a huge leap at the front, while Keselowski was overpowered by Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch. Keselowski was complaining that the car was "way tight" and the more positions he lost the closer he got to his sole remaining title rival Jimmie Johnson, who had started from tenth and was able to maintain that position over the opening laps.
Kyle Busch took over at the front on lap 15 and held it until the first round of green flag pit stops that took place just before lap 50, after which Busch was reinstalled at the top once gain this time for another 65 laps in the lead. That included a five lap debris caution on lap 79 that enabled the drivers to make their second stop under a caution. It proved a slow one for Keselowski, who dropped down to 14th place; meanwhile, Johnson was up to sixth place. Keselowski's points lead was being eaten away, but it was also far too soon to start panicking about it, either.
Busch started to worry that his engine was letting go, which allowed Martin Truex Jr. to close up on the back of the #18 and pass for the lead on lap 116 shortly after Trevor Bayne had bounced off the wall in turn 2 and burst a tyre all without bringing out a new caution. That meant the next round of pit stops starting with Denny Hamlin on lap 128 was another to be managed under green, and Busch retook the lead over Truex with his spot with Johnson now up to third place ahead of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, with Keselowski still mired in the midfield.
A new debris caution came along just a few laps later, and with the comparative luxury of a new pit top under yellow the teams were able to start thinking strategically: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano all opted to take two tyres this time around, while Kyle Busch opted for four and dropped to seventh place at the restart on lap 149.
Johnson in the lead; Keselowski down in 15th. This was now the nightmare scenario for the #2: if Johnson went on to win, then one more lost position and the title would fly right out Keselowski's hands and make it a six-pack for Johnson. One can only only imagine Roger Penske's thoughts at this point of the proceedings.
But the running order changed again with a third caution on lap 154 for newly-crowned Nationwide Series repeat champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who had a tyre go down which put him into the wall in turn 3 and broke the right-front upper control arm to put him out of the race. The caution caused a whole new rethink on pit stop strategy, with Johnson among those to come back in to pit road even though it dropped him down to ninth place behind those who stayed out - which included Keselowski who moved up to seventh place as a result of the reshuffle.