Brad Keselowski, who grew up in a racing family, reached the high ground of his sport Sunday, driving a clean, safe race in the Ford EcoBoost 400, the final event of the season, to win the Sprint Cup championship as Jeff Gordon won the race.
Keselowski, 28, needed only 125 Cup starts to score a championship, reaching the title level faster than anyone since Gordon in 1995.
Keselowski, who finished 15th, needed only a 15th-place finish Sunday to become the champion, and he ran in the top 15 most of the day. Jimmie Johnson, his challenger, fell victim to double trouble. He had to repit in the second half of the race after a crew member failed to put on all lugnuts during a tire change, and he later went to the garage with a broken driveline. Johnson finished 36th.
Keselowski officially won the championship with 21 laps left in the race.
Keselowski, who is from Rochester, Mich., won the multi-million-dollar championship in only his third full season in Cup racing. The title is the first for long-time team owner Roger Penske, who made his first entry into NASCAR racing in 1972. And, in an odd coincidence, the team won the title for Dodge, which won’t be a player in NASCAR circles next year. Dodge last won the championship in 1975 when a guy named Richard Petty was driving.
Keselowski thus becomes the first driver not named Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart to win the championship since 2005.
Johnson and his team took a shot at creating some drama near the midpoint of the race as they changed two tires instead of four during a caution-flag pit stop, putting the No. 48 in first place and potentially in a threatening fuel-strategy position. Keselowski started 16th on the restart.
That kept Johnson in front of Keselowski for a significant chunk of the race, but the difference between their positions was rarely enough to wipe out the point lead Keselowski carried into the race.
A critical moment occurred with 54 laps to go when Johnson pitted for four tires. Working a fuel strategy that could have placed him in excellent position over the closing laps, Johnson instead had to return to his pit after a NASCAR official noticed a missing lug nut on the left rear wheel of the car. That extra time dropped Johnson off the lead lap and into 25th position, and essentially killed his shot at overtaking Keselowski.
It was a major snafu by a team that typically makes very few in the heat of the moment.
Its importance was muted, however, a few laps later when Johnson came onto pit road with smoke in his cockpit – apparently from a broken driveline – and then drove into the garage area, a move that virtually dropped the championship into Keselowski’s lap.
Although there was much race-week discussion about the possibility of Clint Bowyer exacting retribution against Gordon for last week’s crash at Phoenix, the two raced side by side without incident Sunday. Gordon beat Bowyer to the finish line for the win.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.