Brad Keselowski came into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale with a commanding 20-point lead over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and when the checkered flag dropped at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Keselowski reigned supreme with a 15th-place finish.
He earned the championship driving the Miller Lite Dodge fielded by Penske Racing, which is owned by American racing icon Roger Penske.
Going into the race, Keselowski needed to finish 15th or better to clinch the championship and even though he did it, he had to work hard to get to that point. Throughout the 267-lap race, Keselowski fought a car that wasn’t running up to par.
In the final tally, Keselowski was 39 points ahead of Clint Bowyer and 40 over Johnson, who was the only other driver with a mathematical chance for the championship.
Keselowski earned the championship in his 125th Sprint Cup start, the fewest starts since Jeff Gordon did it in 1995 in 93 races. His previous best series points finish was fifth, last season. He also became the second driver to win both the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup championships; Bobby Labonte is the other driver to do so.
This team is phenomenal, and I’m just so fortunate to have them.
The grueling 36-race Sprint Cup Series season started nine months ago with the Daytona 500, and it ended some 265 days later with the Ford EcoBoost 400 at HMS. Over the course of the three-dozen races, Keselowski was a model of consistency, winning five times and earning 23 top-10 finishes. During the playoffs to determine the 2012 champion, Keselowski and his Miller Lite team showed their strength with two wins and 10 top-11 finishes. Today’s 15th spot was the team’s lowest outcome in the last 10 races.
His average finish for the Chase events was 6.3, which equaled that of Tony Stewart a year ago.
“This team is phenomenal, and I’m just so fortunate to have them,” the new champion said while leading a victory lane celebration that was crazy, to say the least. “I feel great to have everyone here, just a dream come true, to have a car like the Blue Deuce, everybody in the Miller Lite Dodge, and to have fast cars, to have a great team, this is what you dream of as a driver, and I’m so fortunate.”
And he went on to say, “It feels really good. I can’t believe how everything came together in three years, and I feel like the best is yet to come. With Roger Penske and Paul Wolfe, I believe we can do anything we set our minds to do. In life and racing, you are a product of who you surround yourself with, and I am surrounded by the best. That is as sweet as life gets.”
“We stayed on our plan to get Brad and this team to be where it needs to be,” Penske said. “For me, the goal I had wasn’t easy. You just didn’t line up and go today as Chad Knaus and the elite Hendrick group was very sharp today. I can hardly believe what happened today. I’ve played this race over in my mind over the weekend so many times. When Jimmie Johnson lost that lug nut, I thought someone gave us four aces right there. And what we needed to do was to make sure we didn’t drop them.”
Asked for a more emotional statement, Penske added, “Personally, I feel amazing to be able to achieve this. In racing, I have been in awe of the people that have been on the stage in New York and Las Vegas for so many years, and to be able to join this elite group and say I am a NASCAR champion means a lot. It took guts for me to stay in this sport, as we could have thought we won the Indy 500 15 times and were a big deal, but until you get here and compete at the top, you know what has really happened. I just woke up tonight to realize how big a thrill it is.”
I just woke up tonight to realize how big a thrill it is.
Said crew chief Paul Wolfe, “This is very special for me and Penske Racing. I want to thank Roger Penske for the opportunity he has given me and Brad. We have plenty of lists passed Roger’s way of things we needed, and then it was our job to go there and perform. In the Chase, we took one race at a time and not to think about the championship, just trying to get as many points as we could. It came down to today to be in the position we were in, but I was a little disappointed not to give Brad a good car. And it made it one of the toughest races of my career to date and it just goes to show how tough it is to win this championship.”
For Dodge, the championship is bittersweet, as the famed manufacturer is bowing out of NASCAR racing as of now. But they go out on a high note, winning the coveted championship for the fifth time. Dodge scored its last championship in 1975 with Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty behind the wheel. He went to victory lane 14 times then. Over its history, Dodge has rung up 217 Sprint Cup victories and seven NASCAR driver’s championships.
In 2012, Dodge has gone to victory lane five times with Keselowski.
Penske has been a formidable force in racing for more than a half century. He started out as a racer but after a brief run behind the wheel, he switched to the ownership side and success quickly followed. His teams excelled in open-wheel and sports-car racing and he managed to attract the best drivers in the world. High-profile wins and championships have been collected over the years, to include 23 national championships, 12 of them coming in open-wheel racing. His teams have been nearly unbeatable at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as they have won an unprecedented 15 Indy 500 victories.
Penske Racing’s stock-car drivers have included Rusty Wallace, Mark Donohue, Kurt Busch, A. J. Allmendinger, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby and Donnie Allison, Dave Marcis, Ryan Newman, Brendan Gaughan, David Stremme and Keselowski.
Wallace won 37 Sprint Cup races for Penske, but he never claimed a championship. The pair finished second and third, but the top rung of the ladder eluded them. However, that condition changed with the outcome of today’s race.
Said Penske earlier this weekend, “There’s no question that winning a NASCAR championship at the elite level is something that everybody is racing wants to accomplish, and we hadn’t done that. It’s a war out there and to be standing at the end with the American flag in your hand when it’s all over and be the champion is something real special. I am a goal-oriented person and one of our goals was to win this championship.”
Penske also said he doesn’t want to sit in the front row of the championship banquet and for the first time, he will be on stage and able to see who is at the party.
And Keselowski strongly indicated that there’s more to come for this team. Through and through Penske Racing and Brad Keselowski are true champions.