With Jimmie Johnson sitting in a disabled car in the garage area for a second consecutive weekend, the championship already had been clinched. Even so, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe had a goal in mind, even with just five laps remaining and that Sprint Cup trophy already being shined up and readied to hand over to the driver of the No. 2 team.
"P17 here, bud," Wolfe relayed over the radio, referring to Keselowski's position on the race track. "Want one more spot."
"You and I are thinking alike," came the response from the cockpit.
They didn't want to back into it, not after coming this far. About an hour earlier, the championship battle had become tighter than most imagined, with Johnson leading the race and Keselowski battling the specter of fuel-mileage issues. The five-time champion even briefly assumed the points lead on the race track, forging ahead by seven when the No. 2 car ran out of gas just before a pit stop. And suddenly, it all changed -- there was a lug nut left missing on the No. 48 car, then something punched a hole in the drive line, and with 22 laps remaining, Keselowski's first title was secured.
Not in the minds of the Penske Racing team, however. After Kyle Busch received the bonus point for leading the most laps Sunday, Keselowski needed to finish 16th at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch the title, regardless of where Johnson ended up. He did just that by passing outgoing champion Tony Stewart in a metaphorical transfer of power on the race track. For good measure, he overtook Mark Martin for 15th on the final lap.
"Joe," Keselowski casually told spotter Joey Meier, "we're going to do this."
And they did, recording a finish that by their standards was mediocre but also necessary to achieve the larger goal without leaving any questions lingering in the South Florida night. The drama ended the instant NASCAR announced Johnson would have to return to pit road after leaving off a lug nut during a stop. But make no mistake about it, as it had done so many other times during the Chase, this was a team that eked out the finish it absolutely had to have. In the end, there would be no nagging invisible asterisk.
* Video:Keselowski credits team with championship
"As bad as we ran [Sunday night]," Wolfe said afterward, "that made it that much more special that we were able to finish 15th, regardless of what happened to the 48."
There were a few tense moments, most notably a pit strategy that didn't work as hoped that left the No. 2 car mired back in traffic as Johnson moved into the lead. But Keselowski never seemed to flinch under the weight of this final championship race, something five-time titlist Johnson warned was a possibility every chance he got. At least, not until it was all over. Then it was Brad unleashed, the new champion dumping cans of sponsor Miller Lite on top of TV personalities, swigging from an oversized pilsner glass, and dumping suds onto a riled-up crowd that chanted "Brad needs beer!"
"I saw him as a great driver and a good tactician," Penske said. "I didn't realize he was commercially viable."
Still, it wasn't easy. For a team that had finished worse than 11th just once since winning in July at Kentucky, the event itself was a slog. "Maybe one of the toughest races of my career to date," said Wolfe, who even in the celebratory aftermath apologized for the car not being as strong as it should have been. And the team put itself in a difficult situation by choosing not to pit when Johnson went in for right-sides and fuel, a situation that placed Keselowski at risk of having to make an extra pit stop. At the time, Penske didn't want the No. 2 car stuck back in traffic -- something that wound up happening anyway, much to the owner's chagrin.
"I was trying to stay as calm as I could," Penske said afterward, "but it wasn't easy."
* Video:Penske on his first Sprint Cup title
Keselowski, who was jovial and talkative all weekend, said there was never a point before the race where he felt stressed out. Even early in Sunday's event, he had his loose moments over the radio -- singing a bar of the country standard "Amarillo by Morning," for instance, when he passed Aric Almirola. But Keselowski will admit, he was a little displeased after the backfiring pit decision left him 24th while Johnson was in the lead.
|Penske's top-five finishers|
"Obviously, the right call there was probably to pit," he said. "But that's not the way it played out there. I'm so thankful that we drove back to 15th so I don't have to hear for the rest of my life about how if the 48 hadn't had them problems, he'd have won the championship. ... But there were some doubts at that moment when that whole cycle was going through, and you didn't know who's on what strategy. I'm driving the car, and I'm listening to them, and I'm hearing their voice, and their voice isn't that confident, I can tell you that. I have to re-watch the race. Maybe I'll have doubts then."
Was he nervous? "I wasn't happy a couple of times," he said, "but I wouldn't say I was nervous."
Even so, all he needed was 15th, and as balky as the Blue Deuce was on occasion Sunday, it always seemed capable of that. But Penske will freely admit, Johnson's problems presented an opening. "When Jimmie dropped that lug nut, it was like somebody gave us four aces in our hand," he said. "We just had to make sure we didn't drop them."
They didn't. Fifteenth wasn't pretty, but it did the job, and it kicked off a raucous celebration that is sure to accelerate once Champions Week begins in Las Vegas. Sunday night, Keselowski burst into the media center carrying a half-empty magnum of champagne from Victory Lane, having already consumed plenty of his primary sponsor's product. There are immediate comparisons to Jeff Gordon, given that, like the four-time champ, Keselowski won the title in his third full season, and with nine Cup victories to his credit. But given his youth and his affinity for social media, this reign promises to be different.
"His ability to reach out to the social media and the younger crowd, he's someone that wants to take it and wants to be that, and because of that will put a lot of effort into it," said Gordon, who won the season finale. "He's entertaining. You never know what you're going to get with Brad. I look forward to watching him. I think this experience, he'll just mature to a whole other level by being in this position and carrying this responsibility."
Eventually. Sunday night, asked how his first title might change him, the new champion of NASCAR's premier division wasn't exactly focused on the big picture. "I've always wanted to date a celebrity," Keselowski said, grinning. "Just throwing that out there."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.