It came down to Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway but when Johnson burned up his rear gear with 41 laps to go it handed Keselowski and Penske Racing their first Sprint Cup Series Championship. Jeff Gordon scored a redemptive win in the Ford EcoBoost 400 by using pit strategy but the day belonged to Brad Keselowski who finished 15th.
"Throughout my whole life I've been told I'm not big enough, I'm not fast enough, I'm not strong enough, I don't have what it takes and I've used that as a chip on my shoulders to carry me through my whole career," Keselowski said. "This season I learned that only a team can do that…It's because of these guys."
At 28-years old and in his third full Sprint Cup Series season Keselowski tied Jeff Gordon as the second fastest driver to score a Sprint Cup Championship. Dale Earnhardt holds the record by winning in his second season. The Championship comes in Roger Penkse's 23rd full season in NASCAR's top series and the organization's last with Dodge. It is the fourth Championship for Dodge in the series but the first since Richard Petty in 1975.
"It's been a great season," Penske said. "I just can't take my hat off enough to all the great guys on our team…Not one failure all year long on that Dodge engine so I want to thank Dodge for what they have done for us."
Penske Racing will leave Dodge for Ford in the 2013 season but left the manufacturer on top.
The 267 lap race began with Keselowski knowing he could clinch his first title with any finish of 15th or better because of his 20 point advantage on Johnson. He inherited a front row spot on the inside of Marcos Ambrose when Joey Logano had to relinquish the pole due to going to a backup car after a practice crash on Saturday. Ambrose jumped out to the early lead as Keselowski settled into fourth.
On lap 15 Kyle Busch asserted his dominance over the race by passing Ambrose for the lead. When green flag stops began on lap 44 Keselowski was sixth and Johnson seventh, up from his tenth starting spot. After the stops Busch still led with Johnson in seventh and Keselowski back to ninth. By lap 61 Brad worked his way by Johnson and Ambrose to take the sixth position. Then on lap 74 the top 5 was Busch, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, and Martin Truex Jr. Jimmie Johnson worked his way past Keselowski for sixth on that lap as well.
The first caution would fly on lap 78 for debris on the backstretch. The first mistake of the race for one of the championship contending teams occurred under the pit stops when all the drivers came down. Keselowski's team hung a lug nut on the right rear which dropped him to 13th on the track. Busch's team held the lead on the stops and Johnson held serve in sixth.
On lap 117 Martin Truex Jr. passed Kyle Busch for the race lead after pressuring him for several laps. When the second round of green flag stops of the race began on lap 128 Johnson was in fourth and Keselowski in 11th. When the stops ended on lap 133 Busch had passed Truex for the lead coming off of pit road and blending back onto the track. Johnson was third, followed by Gordon, and Aric Almirola. Keselowski dropped one spot to 12th.
The second caution came out on lap 143 for debris on the front stretch. The No. 48 made a major strategy play that put pressure on the No. 2 team and changed the championship picture. On the pit stops Johnson's team led by Chad Knaus decided to take two tires which gave him the lead. Busch took four tires along with Truex and came out seventh and ninth. Keselowski also took four tires and was back to 16th. The race restarted on lap 149 and on lap 150 Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski were tied for the championship lead as Johnson led and Keselwoski ran in heavy traffic in 17th.
The third caution would come out on lap 154 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. slammed the outside wall after blowing a tire. He would finish in 39th. Strategy was the key on lap 158 under caution when Johnson, Gordon, Bowyer, and others pitted to top off the fuel and take tires. This set them up to make the end of the race on one more stop. Kasey Kahne inherited the lead for the lap 162 restart with Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr., and Brad Keselowski behind him who also did not pit.
On lap 167 Busch went back to the lead once again after a great battle with Kahne. The off sequence green flag stops began on lap 197 for the drivers who did not pit under the caution. Kahne ruined his race and would finish 21st after he was caught speeding on the stop. On lap 205 Keselowski, who was trying to stretch his fuel to stay on a one stop strategy with Johnson, reported that he was out of gas. He got to pit road under power for fuel and tires without losing much time.
Johnson inherited the lead and on lap 212 came down to pit for the last time. On the stop his chance for a sixth championship went out the window it seemed. His rear tire changer missed a lug nut on the left rear and the No. 48 had to come back in for a second stop. The issue dropped Johnson to 25th while Keselowski ran seventh. Kyle Busch was back in the lead ahead of Truex but both knew they needed to pit again for more fuel.
On lap 226 Johnson's Chevrolet slowed and came to pit road smoking. The Lowe's team diagnosed the issue as a burned up rear gear and went behind the wall. Johnson would end up 36th and dropped to third in the final points standings.
"Pretty heart breaking you know," Johnson said. "We were doing what we needed to and certainly were in position to put a lot of pressure on the 2 car, but that's racing, stuff happens."
With Johnson out, Keselowski's team did not push the fuel again and pitted on lap 247. On lap 253 both Busch and Truex also pitted and Jeff Gordon took over the lead with enough fuel to make the finish. He then held off Clint Bowyer who was on the same strategy but was unable to mount a serious charge at Gordon.
The win is the 87th of Gordon's Sprint Cup career and second of the 2012 season.
"Oh my god it means so much," Gordon said. "I mean this is for Dupont right here, 20 years. That is a long time to be together with a sponsor. For them to commemorate that with this awesome paint scheme and this silver car it means so much…We played the strategy perfectly and we had a really good car."
The win also moved Gordon to tenth in the points and earned him a spot at the end of the season banquet even after his 25 point penalty for his Phoenix actions.
Finishing second was Bowyer, and third was Ryan Newman. Busch, who led the most laps, rallied all the way back to fourth and Greg Biffle took fifth. Truex was sixth, Almirola seventh, Kevin Harvick eighth, Kurt Busch ninth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. tenth.
Keselowski won the title by 39 points over Bowyer and 40 over Johnson. Kasey Kahne was fourth 55 points behind. Greg Biffle took fifth, Denny Hamlin sixth, Matt Kenseth, seventh, Kevin Harvick eighth, Tony Stewart ninth, and Gordon tenth.
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