The Sprint Cup circuit rolled to its final stop – at Homestead-Miami Speedway – with two issues on the front burner.
The bigger, of course, involved deciding the seasonal championship. Brad Keselowski entered the race with a relatively comfortable 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and needed only a 15th-place finish to win the title. Johnson had a chance – albeit a slim one – to claim his sixth championship.
The other matter was secondary, but it also held much interest as race day approached. It involved leftover angst from the previous race at Phoenix, where Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer had tangled in some late-race shenanigans. They moved on to Homestead with the issue far from settled.
By night’s end, Keselowski would have protected his lead and won the title (although he battled through some tense moments), and, in an unlikely turn of events, Gordon and Bowyer would finish one-two in the race – without incident.
It all made for a dramatic finish to the season and earned SPEED.com’s designation as the third best race of the 2012 season.
In the days leading to the race, Johnson hammered away at the idea that Keselowski was quite vulnerable, even though he carried a considerable lead. Things can happen, Johnson said, and he planned to be there front and center if Keselowski ran into trouble.
As matters developed, Johnson put himself in a different pit cycle and was in position to finish in the top five and put heat on Keselowski. But Johnson’s hopes were dashed by a poor pit stop and, a little later, a rear-end problem on his car.
Johnson left the race and finished 36th. Keselowski drove on to finish 15th, making Johnson’s early-race heroics insignificant.
Meanwhile, Gordon was riding along on a fuel-mileage strategy that carried him to the race win.
Bowyer was trailing Gordon in second over the race’s closing laps, and there was the thinking that their fenders would meet if Bowyer could catch him. That didn’t happen. Gordon won easily, but Bowyer’s second-place finish in the race lifted him past Johnson to second in the point race.
Top 10 Races:
3. Ford EcoBoost 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Nov. 18
4. Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 27
5. Irwin Tools Night Race, Bristol Motor Speedway, Aug. 25
6. Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 7
7. Bojangles Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, May 12
8. Quicken Loans 400, Michigan International Speedway, June 17
9. GEICO 400, Chicagoland Speedway, Sept. 16
10. AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 4
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.