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CUP: The Biggest Surprise Of 2012

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By anyone else’s standard, Jimmie Johnson had a great 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, winning five races, tying him for most in the series, and scoring 18 top fives and 24 top 10s, both tops among the drivers.

But when you’re the five-time champion, anything less than another title is a disappointment. And when you’re on the threshold of that sixth title, to lose it with poor performances in each of the final two races of the season is a huge upset.

And that’s why Jimmie Johnson losing the 2012 Sprint Cup championship is SPEED.com’s biggest surprise of the year.

Take nothing away from Brad Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe and the rest of the No. 2 Penske Racing team — their championship was richly deserved and hard earned.

But what happened with Johnson was flat unheard of. From 2004-2009, Johnson won 18 of 60 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a winning percentage of 30 percent. Along the way, he made it a habit of crushing the competition, with neither mercy nor emotion.

When it looked like Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon was finally going to win his fourth championship in 2007, Johnson went out and won four consecutive Chase races.

A year later, Johnson won three Chase races to snuff out the hopes of Carl Edwards and the Roush Fenway Racing crew.

And in 2009, when then-Hendrick driver Mark Martin was threatening to take the points lead, Johnson famously called his shot at the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Prior to practice, Johnson said he and crew chief Chad Knaus had talked things over and decided they wanted to lead every practice, qualify on the pole, lead the most laps and win the race. They did just that, while Martin finished 17th and was never again a factor in the Chase.

Likewise in 2010, Johnson was behind Denny Hamlin heading into the penultimate race at Phoenix. But unforced errors by Hamlin and his team let Johnson back into the game, as he won his fifth consecutive championship.

Flash ahead to 2012.

After the first six races of the Chase, Keselowski led Johnson by seven points. Then, Johnson qualified on the pole at Martinsville, led the most laps and won the race. He did the exact same thing a week later in Texas, where he left seven points up on Keselowski.

It was a perfect situation for Johnson to, metaphorically speaking, put his boot to Keselowski’s throat and not let up, just as he had done so successfully in the past with Gordon, Martin, Hamlin and others.

And when they arrived in Phoenix, Johnson was feeling it.

“Right now if you are going to be the champion, you can’t shrug something off,” Johnson said. “You have to focus on every single point and make sure you can get every point you can on the track.”

But a funny thing happened at Phoenix.

Keselowski was faster than Johnson in every practice for the AdvoCare 500. Keselowski qualified 14th, Johnson 24th. During the race, Keselowski was ahead of Johnson on the track virtually all of the time. And then on Lap 235 of 319, Johnson had a right-front tire bead melt, putting him into the wall and leaving him with a 32nd-place finish. Keselowski’s sixth-place finish meant he left Phoenix 20 points ahead of Johnson.

Still, though, the five-time champ tried to keep the heat on.

“One thing I've learned is that regardless of how experienced anyone is in this championship battle, at some point the magnitude of it hits you,” said Johnson. “At some point, he (Keselowski) may be very comfortable and calm now, it may not happen until he's in the car, but at some point that magnitude hits, and I've lived through it five times. That's a turning moment, and we'll see how he responds. It also carries over to guys changing tires. There's some point where every member on that race team goes, ‘This is it, this is what I've worked so hard far.’ I'll be glad to point out those moments as needed.”

At Homestead, though, it wasn’t Keselowski’s team that made the critical blunder; it was Johnson’s.

After making what should have been his final pit stop on Lap 213, Johnson had to come back in one lap later when a crewman missed a lug on the left-rear tire. That alone would have been enough to torpedo Johnson’s title hopes, but when the rear-end gear failed 12 laps later, it was all over for Johnson, who finished 36th and fell to third in the final points behind Keselowski and Clint Bowyer.

“You know, to be close is just — it sucks to be close and not get it,” said Johnson. “That's just the way it is. … I'm just disappointed that we came so close. We had 80 percent of the Chase that we wanted to have, a ton of momentum late in the season, and then those final two races bit us.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.