HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Thirty-six races, 13,824 miles, 74 drivers ... and the entire Sprint Cup championship turned on a single minute. Hope turned to despair, fear turned to exultation, and an entire season fell into place.
Brad Keselowski came into the season's final race needing only a 15th-place finish to guarantee a Sprint Cup series victory over Jimmie Johnson. For a guy who had won five races and boasted an average finish of 10.1, that seemed as close to a slam-dunk as a NASCAR championship gets these days.
But this is NASCAR, and Keselowski was running against the most ruthlessly efficient team in the sport. The 28-year-old, running in only his third full year in NASCAR, talked an outstanding game. But Johnson had said that at some point, the magnitude of the championship Chase weighs down on you ... and for Keselowski, that moment came at 5:40 in the afternoon.
He'd started on the front row, but before the race was even a few minutes old was already slipping back into the pack. Keselowski wasn't tentative, but he certainly wasn't charging to the front in a way he'd done all throughout the Chase. Still, plenty of points to play with, right? Right...?
Around lap 200, Keselowski's world darkened substantially. As a result of some differing opinions on pit strategy between Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe and team owner Roger Penske, the 2 car ran out of gas on the back stretch. Momentum carried him around to the pit box just fine, and Keselowski admonished everyone, probably mostly himself, to keep a level head and keep digging. It wasn't a critical error, but it was like driving along a cliff and having one tire slip out over the yawning edge.
When Keselowski wheeled back out onto the track after that stop, he was buried deep in the field while Johnson's 48 was in front. All around Keselowski, cars were cycling through the pits, and Keselowski kept asking Wolfe where the leaders were and where he'd be slotted in the pack once everyone finished their stops.
"[Shoot]," Keselowski said, as realization dawned on him. "That's where we're going to be. Twenty-third."
The math had suddenly turned ugly. With 212 laps in the books and less than 60 remaining, Johnson had built a four-point lead over Keselowski. And with the 48 in the front once again, well ... the cliffside was drawing ever closer and the ground ever more fragile.
And then, just like that, everything changed. As Johnson pitted, his pit crew, so often criticized a few years back, once again slipped. The rear tire changer missed a lug nut, and the NASCAR official in the pits didn't hesitate in raising his hand to signal an infraction. (Conspiracy theorists: pay close attention to that last sentence.) The penalty: Johnson had to come back down pit road. He dropped instantly from sixth to 25th, one lap down.
"Big-picture news," Wolfe said. "The guy in front of you has to come back down [pit road]." He then repeated the line for emphasis, the implication clear: your job just got a whole lot easier.
"10-4. Thank you for keeping me posted," Keselowski replied, his voice steadier than it had been in quite some time. "We're back in the game."
Johnson, meanwhile, was stone-cold silent on his radio. He'd had no margin for error, and his team had just made the kind of error that destroys championship hopes. "You there?" crew chief Chad Knaus said over the radio. "We need you, man. Stay with us."
Even so, the game wasn't yet over. Johnson could have worked his way back onto the lead lap, and there were enough cars still running that if Keselowski had hit a wall or gotten caught up in someone else's problems, the 48 had room to put distance between himself and the Miller Lite Dodge.
But six minutes after the lug nut issue, Johnson saw smoke ... and the championship picture turned crystal clear. "I'm seeing smoke in the cockpit," he said, and soon realized that it was his own. He had an engine issue, a catastrophic one that took him off the track once and for all. And all he could do was sit in his car and watch as Keselowski ticked down the laps to his first championship.
Sometimes, NASCAR is just about driving fast and turning left. A couple dozen left turns and 20 minutes after the most critical minute of his life, Brad Keselowski was mathematically and officially deemed the Sprint Cup champion.
"It's great when you get that news" during a race, said Jeff Gordon, who's got a bit of experience winning championships. "You don't want it to be your focus. But at the same time, it's a big deal, it's what you've worked for, so when that moment comes, whether it's the last lap or earlier, it's an incredible feeling."
So with Johnson in the garage and effectively eliminated, Keselowski, the most self-aware driver in the sport, exhaled and started considering history. He began asking where he was positioned in the race, and the relative speeds of everyone around him.
"You know what he's thinking," Wolfe said to his fellow engineers atop the pit box. "He wants to finish 15th. " The implication being, of course, that Keselowski would eliminate all doubt about his championship legitimacy with such a finish.
"I'm so thankful that we drove back to 15th so that I didn't have to hear for the rest of my life about how the 48 could have beat me if he hadn't had those problems," Keselowski said later. "The only thing I was thinking was, what could I do to get a good enough finish that there wouldn't be a question?" And as it turned out, he got that 15th-place finish he wanted ... and beat Johnson and Clint Bowyer with nearly a full race's worth of points to spare.
(One other note: the Sprint Cup championship turned in Keselowski's favor at 5:40 p.m. ... exactly two hours and 22 minutes after the green flag dropped. Everything's coming up 2 these days.)
"When Jimmie dropped that lug nut, someone just gave us four aces in our hand," Roger Penske said afterward. "We just had to make sure we played them."
They lost the Homestead battle to Gordon and 13 other drivers, sure, but they won the war. And to the victors go the spoils ... and the beer.
Funny how one minute can change an entire career.