November 15, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Keselowski On Brink Of Delivering Elusive First Cup Title To Penske
It’s “One to Go” in NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship,” and Brad Keselowski is on the verge of giving a “Brickyard Legend” team owner his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Keselowski has an impressive 20-point edge over another “Brickyard Legend” – four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson – heading into the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday, Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Keselowski will clinch his first Sprint Cup championship if he finishes 15th or better, 16th and leads at least one lap or 17th and leads the most laps.
If Keselowski is successful in protecting his lead, he will give Roger Penske his first championship in NASCAR’s premier division. Penske is the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history as his cars have won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” 15 times. While Penske has sometimes made winning the Indy 500 look easy, his quest to win NASCAR’s biggest championship has been hard.
Rusty Wallace came close several times in the early to mid-1990s. Other drivers, such as Kurt Busch, came close but could never deliver the championship. But none of those drivers had this much of an advantage heading into the final race of the season, factoring in NASCAR’s “simplified” scoring system that went into place beginning with the 2011 season.
“Well, to win a championship for Roger would certainly be a huge accomplishment considering everything he's been through in American motorsports and beyond,” Keselowski said Thursday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “You look at his legacy in the sport, and you can’t help but feel that he’s been a little bit slighted on the NASCAR side. We’d like to get that job done, and I think we have the opportunity to do it. I think we have the team and car, and it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together. And so far that’s happened this year. There’s no guarantee that will continue to happen, but I think you look at trends and you try to label how things can happen, and there's a very strong possibility.
“For us, it's about focusing on getting the job done and trying not to think about all those other things, whether it's what it means or what obstacles lay ahead. It's about just focusing on what we need to do, and the history books and the life lessons and so forth, those things will work their way out in the end if you just get the job done, and I think that's where our focus is.”
While Keselowski appears to be in command, Johnson is not giving up. He rallied from behind in the final race of the season to claim the 2010 Cup title and is determined to do that again Sunday.
“I definitely think it's possible,” Johnson said. “You look at our bad luck last weekend, there's still a race here, and there's still tires on these race cars, and something can happen there. There's still a lot of very tough competition on the track. This just isn't any other race; this is the championship race, and there's a lot that comes with that.
“I'm very optimistic. I think that we'll have a very fast race car, and we'll go out onto the racetrack and do all that we can each and every lap of every practice session qualifying and race, and see how things play out.”
Johnson is already a legend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and draws inspiration from what happened in this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series championship won from behind by American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I find another point of motivation and optimism, we look at the IndyCar championship and how it unfolded at Fontana,” Johnson said. “It seemed like it was a lay-up race, and things can happen. This is racing. I think either way we'll be in good shape. We'll have a fast race car and go out and race hard, and then if some luck comes our way, we'll hopefully be ready to capitalize on that, as well.”
Penske was on the short end of this year’s IZOD IndyCar championship when his driver, Will Power, crashed early in the race attempting to pass Hunter-Reay. Keselowski is determined that doesn’t happen in NASCAR.
“This, as in the opportunity to win a championship?” Keselowski said. “Well, I think that it's not something that you can really answer in a sense that's easy for this group to understand. I mean, sorry, maybe that was a jab back. I've been listening to too much Tony Stewart. But I think it comes from the people that you're surrounded by and how comfortable they are, and that comes into your own world, and I can tell you that the group that I have and that I'm surrounded by, whether it's in my personal life or professional life, they're not known for being very rattled in these opportunities, in these positions, and I think that's probably the biggest thing that you can do is be surrounded by people that share that same passion that you have but also put out a level of calmness that is somewhat addictive.
“I feel like if you look at Paul Wolfe (crew chief), Paul is pretty stone-faced, and that's his style. He's not a real emotional guy, and certainly you cue off of that, just like Jimmie was saying he does with (crew chief) Chad (Knaus), and there's other guys. You look at Roger, Roger is the same way. You're not going to see Roger showing a bunch of emotion even if we do win it. He's going to be very stoic, as he always is, which is great. And my family life, personal life is the same way, whether it's my dad or mom, when they have their successes, they're certainly very passionate and happy for them, but they're also very quiet and very capable of moving forward and looking forward to not get too caught up in the moment.”
It’s pretty simple. If Keselowski finishes in the top-15, he can celebrate the championship. But Keselowski had done that just one time in four Homestead-Miami starts. He was 13th two years ago and 20th last year.
By comparison, Johnson has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 11 Homestead starts. But he finished 32nd last year. Johnson has never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he never had to during his five consecutive Cup championships from 2006-10.
“Well, I think that to think that a top-15 finish is a lay-up is tough,” Johnson said of Keselowski. “This garage area is tough, the weight of this race, I don't care who you are, it'll show up at some point in time, and thoughts will run through your head. And with all that being said, a 15th-place finish is not a lay-up for these guys. So I have a little bit of stock in that, and we'll see how they respond. Their trends this year have been strong, but this is a different race.”
Keselowski is well aware of what he has to do to win the championship and will be reminded throughout the race by both Wolfe and Penske.
“I haven't crunched a lot of numbers to be honest, not those types,” Keselowski said. “I can tell you what kind of fuel mileage we're going to get, but I've got no idea about the trends and patterns of the average finish and so forth, but I know if we go out there and just do our job, everything will take care of itself. To put your focus on those other things is just another distraction that doesn't serve the goal that we have. So I haven't done it.”
But don’t expect Keselowski to necessarily play it safe. That’s just not his style.
“One of my favorite movies in the whole wide world is this documentary on Ayrton Senna, and there's this really powerful scene in that movie that sticks with me when I think about this weekend,” Keselowski said of the late Formula One great. “I think about this scene in the movie when they talked about him at Monaco, which was his just his phenomenal track that he was so strong at – and how he had this huge lead over his teammate at the time, obviously had an identical car, which showcased what kind of talent Ayrton had, and they were coming down to the closing laps of the race, and they told him to slow down, you have a huge lead, don't worry, just slow down, just and he wrecked.
“And I think of that as I approach this weekend. I'm going to go out there and play my game, race my way. That's got us to this point, and if we do that, we'll be fine, and I think that's our approach.
“I've been going for the championship all my life, and specifically this particular one for the last nine races. So Homestead pays the same amount of points as Chicago did and the same amount of points that Martinsville did when Jimmie won. It's the same, and there's no reason to change that approach, and that's why I feel that way.”
Keselowski and Johnson are the only drivers with a chance at the championship. Third-place Kasey Kahne is 50 points back, and Clint Bowyer’s chance at a championship ended when Jeff Gordon retaliated for a previous incident by crashing him late last Sunday at Phoenix, which led to a brawl in the garage area. Bowyer is fourth, 52 points out of the lead followed by Denny Hamlin, who is 62 out. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth is sixth, 74 points back followed by Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who is 86 out.
A trio of “Brickyard Legends” are in positions 8-10, including 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick (86 back), two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart (87 out) and four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Gordon (90 points behind).
Martin Truex Jr. is 11th, 111 points out and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. is guaranteed of 12th place, 160 points out of the lead.
Those drivers have the offseason to determine what they could have done better in this year’s Chase. Meanwhile, Keselowski is poised to give Penske the final jewel in his auto racing empire if he delivers the “Brickyard Legend” his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title Sunday night.
The race will be broadcast live at 3 p.m. (ET) Sunday on ESPN, with the pre-race show starting at 2 p.m.
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