History inevitable at Homestead this weekend
Posted November 17, 2012
Miami — One way or other, we're going to see history made in Sunday's Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.
We'll either see legendary race team owner Roger Penske and NASCAR's biggest rising young star, Penske driver Brad Keselowski, earn their respective first Cup championship, or, we'll see Jimmie Johnson win his sixth Cup championship in seven years – which further extends the five straight championships he earned from 2006 through 2010. No other driver has done that feat.
And if Johnson wins the 2012 season crown, he'll be just one more championship away from tying NASCAR's all-time record shared by the sport's two greatest drivers ever, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
For all the excitement we had in last year's championship battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 could be equally exciting and compelling.
The battle between Keselowski and Johnson boils down to not only a David vs. Goliath matchup, but also a contest between the sport's most dominating driver for nearly a decade against a young, blue collar driver who is perched to become the next big superstar and the newest face of NASCAR.
Keselowski has the edge coming into Sunday's race, leading Johnson by 20 points. While it's not an insurmountable lead, Keselowski definitely has Johnson's number going in. We've seen several instances during the first nine races of this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup where Keselowski has not only put pressure on Johnson, he's also done something few other drivers have been able to do during Johnson's prior championship runs, namely, he's found a way to get into Johnson's head.
We saw that in the Chase opener at Chicago and particularly last Sunday at Phoenix. As Keselowski was motoring along, he built about a 12-car lead on Johnson at one point that he threatened to make even larger. Realizing he was going backward rather than forward, Johnson decided to take some uncharacteristic chances in hopes of cutting Keselowski's margin.
Unfortunately, while Johnson has been the king of closing gaps in the past, such was not the case this time: he pushed the pedal to the metal a bit too much, putting pressure on his right side tires, and leading one to blow out, sending Johnson crashing into the wall.
Keselowski motored on while Johnson took his car to the garage, losing more than 30 laps while repairs were made before he was able to rejoin the race.
Just that one instance of Keselowski getting into Johnson's head caused what had been a seven-point edge for Johnson coming into Phoenix turn completely around upon leaving the Valley of the Sun, with Keselowski emerging with a 20-point edge.
That's where we stand now heading into Sunday.
There is somewhat of a precedent for Johnson. While he was the points leader heading into Homestead for four of the five previous seasons that he ultimately won the championship, such was not the case leading up to be what would become his fifth title in 2010.
Denny Hamlin had a 33-point lead over Johnson going into that race, which would seem pretty stout – but it wasn't. Remember, NASCAR changed the points structure in 2011 to make things simpler and easier for fans, media and drivers to keep track of.
That's why, in theory, Keselowski actually may have a bit more of an edge than the numbers indicate.
Even if Johnson wins Sunday's race, Keselowski takes the title in a walk as long as he finishes 15th or higher.
It's that simple.
And considering Keselowski starts Sunday's race from the third position, and Johnson from the 10th position, you can expect both drivers to stick around the top 10 throughout the entire race.
In fact, of the top 10 starters Sunday, only four are Chase drivers: Keselowski, Johnson, and Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer (sixth) and Martin Truex Jr. (seventh).
And Bowyer could potentially be the wildest of wildcards in Sunday's race. While he is mathematically eliminated from championship contention – thanks to being intentionally wrecked by Jeff Gordon at Phoenix – don't be surprised if he's out for revenge. And what better way to get back at Gordon than to "accidentally" run into Johnson, thus ending his championship chances with one fell swoop.
While you'd like to think that there's more integrity in NASCAR than to have an intentional hatchet chop, there's no question Bowyer has a score to settle – and it's bound to happen either some time next season or as soon as Sunday.
As it stands, Bowyer is right between Keselowski and Johnson on the starting grid. Anything can happen at Homestead, which is notorious for untimely wrecks and race winners that have nothing else on the line – namely, non-Chase drivers like pole-sitter Joey Logano, outside pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and several others.
NASCAR is going to try and run a clean race and police it with a very close eye of scrutiny, but funny things – no pun intended – can happen at the most inopportune times at Homestead.
But no matter what happens, there's no question history of one type or other is going to be made Sunday. And while the drivers have the hard job, we have the easiest one because we get to sit back, ooh and aah and enjoy a race that is likely to remain in our memory for a long, long time to come.
Let's get that green flag flying because we can't wait to see who takes the checkered flag and the championship about three hours later.