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.
With some aggressive fuel-saving along the way, Johnson could likely now make it to the end with just one final stop; whereas Keselowski would have to make at least two more stops. That would be fine as long as there were a caution at a suitable point in the remaining 105 laps of the race; Keselowski wasn't to know that there would be no more cautions at all, and that given the relative lack of pace still bedevilling the #2 car his goose was looking increasingly cooked.
At the restart on lap 162, those cars that had stayed out led the field to the green: Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards made up the top five, while behind them Johnson put the boot in on Keselowski with his new tyres and quickly dived under him for position. Within half a dozen laps, Johnson had bounced back up to fourth place - and Keselowski had dropped out of the top ten.
At the front there was a brilliant back-and-forth battle between Kahne and Busch which was finally decided in Busch's favour, and by lap 177 he had already formally clinched the bonus point for most laps led - at least that was one thing that Keselowski didn't need to worry about Johnson getting. Busch continued to lead through to his deferred penultimate pit top on lap 200, with the others soon following him in - Kahne earning a speeding penalty in the process, while Keselowski left it slightly too late and ran dry as he came in, costing him more spots.
Johnson was in the lead; Keselowski was now 24th. As things stood, Johnson had the title in the bag. But there were still 60 laps to go ...
Johnson came in for his final scheduled stop of the day on lap 213, after which he should have been clear to run to the end of the race. Instead, as the #48 pulled away from the pit stall, the NASCAR official was pointing at a wheel to indicate that a lugnut hadn't gone on properly. That was an automatic 'return to the pits' penalty for Johnson. It was a gamechanger that handed the title momentum squarely back in Johnson's favour, as he fell to 25th place a lap off the lead as a result.
That was almost certainly the deciding moment - Keselowski should hunt down that lugnut, take it home and have it stuffed and mounted, because it won him the 2012 championship. Even so, it wasn't quite in the bag just yet: no one was writing off Johnson's supernatural ability to recover when it mattered most, and all it would take was one slip from Keselowski putting the #2 into the wall and the story could yet end completely differently.
The story did take another fork: but it wasn't in Johnson's favour. Just ten laps after the lugnut disaster, Johnson was slowing up and pulling back down to pit road yet again. This time, it was terminal for the #48, with a rare drive line failure meaning that there was nothing Chad Knaus and the crew could do other than forlornly push the car toward the garage area. As the sun set over Homestead-Miami, so Johnson's 2012 title hopes were also finally extinguished.
"There was oil all over under the back of the car, so something happened from either a line failure or a fitting was hit by debris or something and it puked all the gear oil out and burned up the gear," explained a disappointed Johnson.
"I'm proud of the fact that we went out there and backed up what we said we could do and we put the pressure on," he added. "It doesn't take the sting away from losing the championship. It helps in some ways and stings in others, so it balances out, I guess."
That was it: the title was over and done. Keselowski could finish wherever he liked, even crash out entirely, and there was no way Johnson could now pip him to the title. Keselowski was able to coast through the last 40 laps without a care in the world, other that worry about how being a NASCAR Cup champion was going to change his life, how he was going to get through hundreds of media interviews, and just how much beer he would be consuming in the next 24 hours.
With neither Johnson nor Keselowski involved in the battle for the actual race win, there was a vacancy at the top. It looked to be back in the hands of long-time leader Kyle Busch, but he was one of those cars who still had one more stop to make in order to get to the finish line, whereas Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon had been following the #48's fuel conservation strategy and was good to run to the end.
Busch was finally in with 13 laps to go, and Gordon duly picked up the lead when he did. It would likely have been a sobering moment for the Penske crew to realise that if not for the lugnut and drive line issues, the same strategy would almost certainly have put Johnson into that position. Not bad, especially considering that Hendrick Motorsports had never managed to put a driver into victory lane at Homestead before this weekend.
Gordon went on to maintain the lead to the chequered flag, redeeming the four-time Cup champion a week on after his controversial run-in with Clint Bowyer at Phoenix. And who was running in second place to Gordon this week at Homestead? Why yes, it was Bowyer. Surely they weren't going to resume hostilities and wipe each other out in the final laps in a continuation of their feud?
In fact Gordon had a decent margin of over two seconds over Bowyer, who did what he could to close the gap and managed to halve it before his momentum finally stalled and the laps ran out: Gordon took the win, Bowyer came home in second, and Ryan Newman pipped Kyle Busch for third place ahead of Greg Biffle and Bowyer's Michael Waltrip Racing team mate Martin Truex who survived a late brush with the wall.
"What an unbelievable week," said Gordon as he climbed out of the #24 in victory lane just seven days after the Phoenix fracas. "There were so many ups and downs this week, and to be able to end in Victory Lane with just an awesome team effort was just awesome
"This is the way you want to win a race, by just going to battle with them and having a good race car and playing it all out really smart," he said. "I knew we had a great race car going into the race. At times I didn't think we had a winning car, but you know what, we played the strategy perfectly, and we had a really good car. It is just unbelievable to experience this. After last week, then to come here and battle like this and end up in Victory Lane, just unreal."
Gordon reiterated the comments he'd made on Friday expressing regret about last weekend's clash with Bowyer, which had also wrecked the cars of Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. "Can you believe that? There was one restart where I had Joey and maybe Aric and Clint right there surrounding me," he said, shaking his head.
"It's been an emotional week and a hard one, one of the hardest ones I've ever gone through, just looking back on my decision," he admitted. "That thing is going to work itself out some way through racing. I felt terrible how I went about it, and I still regret the way I went about it. But, I can't take it back. But what we can do is look forward and race guys as hard and clean as we possibly can. This is a great way to get some positive things going."
Bowyer on the other hand was still not entirely over last week's events. Asked how he felt after finishing second, he replied: "Frustrated and bummed out. I would've loved to have won that race, especially to beat him
But second place in the race, added to Johnson's retirement, did mean that Bowyer unexpectedly slipped into the runners-up position in the championship standings - no small achievement for Bowyer in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing.
"It's huge, to end up second in points and beat guys like Jimmie Johnson to do it," he said. "I'm proud of everybody, because we were there all season long," he added
Team co-owner Michael Waltrip was also still not over last weekend's events, and was clearly amazed that they had managed to overcome that adversity by rebounding in the season finale. "What happened last week stinks, but at least we overcame it," he said. "We thought it cost us a chance for second in the points, which hurt. We didn't come down here thinking we were going to finish second, but I'll be darned, here we are."
Bowyer was also quick to add his congratulations to the new Cup champion, Brad Keselowski. "It's just a cool story. We'll have a new face as the champion of this sport. I would've liked for it to have been me, but I'm super proud of him and all of his efforts."
Elsewhere in victory lane, the 28-year-old from Michigan was being handed his very own Sprint Cup trophy. It seemed like no time at all that he was the Nationwide Series champion in 2010 while simultaneously running his first full Cup season with Penske Racing. Everyone had agreed that he was one to watch, a real star of the future; it's just that no one really expected the future to arrive as quickly as it had.
"He's entertaining, you never know what you're going to get with Brad," said Sunday's race winner, Jeff Gordon. "I look forward to watching him. I think this experience, he'll just mature to a whole other level by being in this position and carrying this responsibility."
Maybe 'maturing' is a little optimistic right at this moment, though. The new champion, when asked what the title meant and how he thought it might change him, still couldn't resist answering with a quip.
"I've always wanted to date a celebrity. I'm just throwing that out there," he said to laughter from the media. Then, with a pause and a little more seasoned consideration: "Not a Kardashian."Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings