HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Brad Keselowski finished exactly where he needed to finish - 15th - in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Jimmie Johnson, the only driver who could have challenged Keselowski for the title, wasn't even on the track when the checkered flag fell for Jeff Gordon, who outran Clint Bowyer to win the race. Johnson went to the garage with 40 laps left with an apparent driveline issue, dropping the championship in Keselowski's lap.
Johnson finished 36th and lost second place in the final point standings to Bowyer. Bowyer finished 39 points behind Keselowski, and Johnson was 40 back.
The championship is the first for the 28-year-old Keselowski, who completed only his third full season in Sprint Cup racing. It's also the first for long-time team owner Roger Penske, who has won motorsports championships across the globe (and 15 Indianapolis 500s) but had fallen short repeatedly in the run for NASCAR's top title.
Keselowski won the championship driving for Dodge, which announced earlier this year that it will not return to NASCAR racing next season. The title is Dodge's first since 1975, when Richard Petty won the championship.
A critical moment occurred with 54 laps to go when Johnson pitted for four tires. Working a fuel strategy that could have placed him in excellent position over the closing laps, Johnson instead had to return to his pit after a NASCAR official noticed a missing lug nut on the left rear wheel of the car. That extra time dropped Johnson off the lead lap and into 25th position and essentially killed his shot at overtaking Keselowski.
It was a major snafu by a team that typically makes very few in the heat of the moment.
Its importance was reduced, however, a few laps later when Johnson came onto pit road with smoke in his cockpit - apparently from a broken driveline - and then drove into the garage area, a move that virtually dropped gave the championship to Keselowski.
NOTES: When the 2013 Sprint Cup season opens in February at Daytona International Speedway, the cars will be quite different from the model that has been raced since 2007. The newly named "Generation Six" Sprint Cup car will more closely resemble the street models of the Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas driven by fans. NASCAR also revealed this week a few cosmetic changes to the new models, including the driver's last name across the top of the windshield and making the roof of the car - previously reserved for the car number - open to sponsor identification. ... Sunday's race marked crossroads moments for two key drivers. It was the last event for Matt Kenseth with Roush Fenway Racing and also the final run for Joey Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth will move to the Gibbs team next year after spending the vast majority of his NASCAR career with team owner Jack Roush, and Logano will join Keselowski at Penske Racing. ... Regan Smith, driving for team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., won Saturday's Ford EcoBoost 300 Nationwide Series finale. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the series championship for the second straight season.