19 November 2012
Keselowski seals maiden Cup championship
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.
Martin Truex Jr.
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