It all comes down to this afternoon for the EcoBoost 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, has the points lead heading into the final race, with Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in second, 20 points back.
"I knew coming into this weekend I was going to have a big hill to climb with the No. 2 car and the points lead that they have," Johnson said. "They have done their part and have been very competitive all weekend long. We will just have to see how that race goes tomorrow. I feel we have made our car a lot better through the course of the weekend. The last two race runs we had were pretty strong and in the mix.”
Keselowski is in a position in which he, for the most part, has control over his own destiny. Jimmie Johnson -- not so much.
"I just know if I run well enough it (where Johnson is running) doesn’t matter," Keselowski said.
So far this weekend, Keselowski's fortune has fallen more on the positive side, to the misfortune of future teammate Joey Logano, current driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Keselowski qualified third on Friday as Logano took the pole. But Logano got caught up in an accident that also involved his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Toyota and the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Greg Biffle in practice Saturday morning.
As a result, Logano has to go to a backup car, so he'll have to drop to the back at the start of the race, moving each car in the inside line up a spot. That'll move Keselowski up to the "unofficial" pole spot. But Johnson's not too far back, also starting in the top-10 in 10th.
I hope he tries really, really, really hard to lead that first lap.
“Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting to be on the front row for this weekend’s race," Keselowski said. "It’s a little bit different for sure than what we’ve been used to but it’s different in, you know, a good way for us. It was unfortunate what happened to Joey and those guys. I still haven’t seen a really good replay to understand that but obviously it’s a good place to go and I’m going to do what I can to lead that first lap. I think we have the car to do it.”
When Keselowski becomes the "unofficial" pole sitter with Logano dropping to the back, he'll have the perfect opportunity to lead a lap right off the bat and claim a coveted bonus point, dropping his must win position to 16th or better.
"I can run up front and lead laps," Keselowski said. "I'm proud of that. If I can take the lead without wrecking myself, that's what I'm going to do."
But Johnson also realizes the flip side of that situation.
“I hope he (Keselowski) tries really, really, really hard to lead that first lap," Johnson said. "I know (Marcos) Ambrose next to him is going to try hard too. That could be good for me."
Keselowski and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, don't have the experience of being in Sprint Cup championship battles that Johnson and his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus do, but they've been together for quite some time.
I think we have the car to do it.
While 2012 is only Wolfe's second season as a Sprint Cup crew chief, it's his third year with Keselowski, and the duo has won a championship before. Wolfe guided Keselowski and the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge Nationwide Series team to the 2010 title in that series. Wolfe has often been compared to Knaus throughout this championship run and is considered by many to be one of the brightest minds in the garage.
But this is Sprint Cup, not Nationwide, and Johnson and Knaus are in familiar territory. Knaus has been atop the pit box for all five of Johnson's championships, and the two have been together since their respective Cup-level careers began about a decade ago.
Even so, Keselowski definitely has the upper hand after taking the points lead from Johnson and building a 20-point cushion last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway when Johnson suffered a tire issue that sent him hard into the wall and then into the garage for repairs.
Keselowski realizes that he could suffer the same fate this weekend at Homestead.
While Keselowski has the upper hand, the championship battle is far from over, especially when the driver in second is Johnson, the driver with the most championships among all active drivers and the third-most of all-time.