Homestead, FL – Jeff Gordon won the battle, but Brad Keselowski won the war on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Keselowski claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship with a 15th-place finish in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400, while Jeff Gordon picked up his second win of the year by capitalizing on fuel strategy late in the race and then holding off Clint Bowyer in the closing laps.
In a race that ran relatively uneventful for the first 300 miles, Jimmie Johnson, who was the only eligible contender other than Keselowski remaining in the title hunt, held the lead when Keselowski ran out of gas just before he was pitting on lap 206. He coasted onto pit road and refueled before returning to the track in 24th. At that time, Johnson had taken over the points lead. The five-time series champion entered the season-finale with a 20-point deficit.
But Johnson's attempt for a sixth series title turned for the worse on lap 213 when he exited his pit stall with a missing lug nut on his left-rear tire. He had to pit again and fell one lap behind. Then his championship hopes really went up in smoke 40 laps short of the finish when he had his rear-end gear burn up on his Chevrolet, which put him out of the race. Johnson ended up finishing 36th.
"(Johnson) is the best," Keselowski said. "He said the other day that he was going to win this damn race. We were not as fast as we wanted to be. I'll be the first to admit that. But my guys never gave up. We kept working, and at the end there, we were capable of getting back up enough to where it wouldn't have mattered if he won, which made me feel a lot better."
Keselowski ended the year 39 points ahead of Bowyer, while Johnson's season concluded 40 points short.
"It's pretty heartbreaking," Johnson said. "We were doing what we needed to do, and we were certainly in position to put a lot of pressure on that 2 car (Keselowski), but that's racing. Stuff happens. It was out of my control."
Keselowski gave team owner Roger Penske his first title in NASCAR's premier series. He also delivered Dodge a huge going-away present, as the auto manufacturer bid farewell to NASCAR competition. Keselowski became the first Dodge driver to win a championship since Richard Petty last did it in 1975.
At age 28, Keselowski concluded his third full season driving for Penske Racing in Sprint Cup. Keselowski's 2010 Nationwide Series championship was Penske's maiden title in a NASCAR national touring circuit.
"This isn't a one-man effort," said Keselowski, who scored five race wins this season, including two in the Chase. "I might get the glory, but it's about these guys (No. 2 Penske Racing team), and it's about my family. I use this saying all the time that, 'Life is a team sport.' I'm just very proud and very happy for everyone of the people that is a part of my team. I feel like I've got the best team in the world around me."
Keselowski joined Bobby Labonte as the only drivers who have won a Sprint Cup and Nationwide championship. Keselowski's Cup title came in his 125th start, which is the fewest since Gordon captured his first of four championships in 1995. Gordon did it in 93 starts.
Penske, who has 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner in the IndyCar Series, has been fielding cars in NASCAR's top racing circuit since 1972. It ended the longest non-championship streak among current ownership. Penske's previous best points finish was second with Rusty Wallace in 1993
"This is the top of the mark right now," Penske said. "When Brad and I got together three years ago, we talked about a plan that we executed. This race shop team is outstanding, and I want to thank Dodge for what they have done. This guy, Keselowski, is something special."
Penske won the Daytona 500 for the first time in 2008 with driver Ryan Newman.
Earlier this year, Penske announced that his racing organization is switching to Fords for its Sprint Cup and Nationwide teams in 2013. It ultimately led to Dodge's decision to exit the sport. Penske was the only full-time team in Cup fielding Dodges.
Gordon's win came one week after he intentionally wrecked Bowyer in the penultimate Chase race at Phoenix. Joey Logano and Aric Almirola were also involved in the wreck. Gordon avoided being suspended for Homestead, but NASCAR did penalize him with a fine of $100,000 and a loss of 25 points for his altercation with Bowyer. Their crash late in the race at Phoenix led to a brawl between Gordon and Bowyer's teams in the garage area.
"Can you believe that?" Gordon said. "There was one restart where I had Joey and maybe even Aric and Clint right there surrounding me. That thing is going to work itself out someway through racing. I feel terrible about how I went about it, and I still regret the way I went about it. But I can't take it back. What we can do is look forward and race guys as hard and clean as we possibly can."
Gordon gambled on fuel in the late going and then took the lead with 13 laps remaining before beating Bowyer to the finish line by one second. Gordon notched his 87th career victory. It was also the first win for him and team owner Rick Hendrick at this 1.5-mile racetrack in South Florida.
"I knew we had a great race car going into the race, and at times, I didn't think we had a winning car, but we played the strategy perfectly," Gordon said. "After last week and to come here and battle like this and end up in victory lane is just unreal. It's a great way for us to end this season."
Gordon has won at every track on the current Sprint Cup schedule with the exception of Kentucky, which has hosted a series race just twice (2011 and '12).
Ryan Newman finished third, while Kyle Busch took the fourth spot after leading 191 of 267 laps. Busch finished second in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races at Homestead this weekend.
Greg Biffle placed fifth, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Almirola, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, who also won five races this year, fell from second to third in the Chase standings as a result of his disappointing finish.
"I just got to reflect back on an amazing year," he said. "It's definitely not the result we wanted, but I'm very proud of how we raced all year long. We'll come back next year and try to get them."