NASCAR: 5 Lessons Learned from Sunday's Sprint Cup Finale at Homestead
Somehow, some way, NASCAR just keeps finding ways to outdo itself.
After last year's exciting finish in the season-ending race at Homestead—with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards tying for the championship, only to have Stewart win via the first tiebreaker (more wins during the season, 5-1, than Edwards), many likely wondered if this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship would be somewhat anti-climactic.
Well, guess what, Sunday's season finale may not have been quite as close as the Stewart-Edwards finish, but it was nonetheless just as exciting as Brad Keselowski went on to win his first Cup championship.
Sure, Jimmie Johnson's mechanical failure helped Keselowski's cause, but it's safe to say that most NASCAR fans can look back upon this year's Chase and smile at all the excitement and drama that took place.
What does NASCAR do for an encore again next season? No one knows, but for many of us, we can hardly wait for it to happen.
So without further ado, and as we put a bow on the 2012 Sprint Cup season, let's reflect back on the five lessons we learned from Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway.
1. Brad Keselowski Is a Hell of a Driver
What Brad Keselowski did Sunday was nothing short of spectacular.
A season-long underdog, he fought tooth-and-nail with Jimmie Johnson throughout the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After Johnson won back-to-back races at Martinsville and Texas, taking a seven-point lead on Keselowski heading into last week's race at Phoenix, it looked like "five-time" Johnson would almost assuredly become "six-time" after Sunday's race at Homestead.
But a costly wreck at Phoenix that turned the tables on Johnson, putting Keselowski ahead by 20 points heading into Homestead. A costly pit stop mistake and then a horrendous drive train failure ended Johnson's chances and sealed the deal for Keselowski to win his first Cup crown.
Interestingly enough, Keselowski said in one post-race TV interview that he might not have won the championship if Johnson's car hadn't suffered the failure it did.
But there's no denying: Brad Keselowski is indeed the 2012 Sprint Cup champion and no one, not even Jimmie Johnson, will ever be able to take that away from him.
2. Jimmie Johnson Is Human and Not Unbeatable
Jimmie Johnson has been a great champion for NASCAR, winning a record five consecutive titles from 2006 through 2010.
He had somewhat of an off year in 2011, leading to Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards to battle it out for the championship, but Johnson returned with a vengeance in 2012.
Not only did he win five races, he looked like he would win championship No. 6. And at some points earlier in Sunday's race, that sure looked like the case.
But a costly pit stop penalty, followed by mechanical failure with a broken drive train sealed Johnson's fate for 2012.
He would not go home with his sixth title, he would not have to change his unofficial nickname of "Five-time" to "Six-time," and he leaves the season with one promise: As tough as he was this season, given what happened Sunday, you can bet the driver of the No. 48 is going to come back harder and tougher in 2013.
3. The Captain's Ship Finally Came in
Roger Penske, affectionately known for his nickname of "The Captain," finally earned his first Sprint Cup championship, the only major owner to have never achieved such success until now.
Sure, Penske has owned teams that have won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 23 championships in a variety of racing series, but until Sunday, Penske had never won a Cup championship as an owner, even after nearly 30 years of chasing that elusive crown.
Sunday, at the age of 75, the multi-billionaire finally won that elusive Cup title as a team owner, something that legendary drivers and NASCAR Hall of Famers like Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace, as well as Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman couldn't do for Penske, but some blue collar kid from suburban Detroit named Brad Keselowski was finally able to do what all those other luminaries couldn't.
Could this begin the start of a new dynasty, especially with the move of Penske Racing from Dodge to Ford for next season?
In an unquestionable irony, Dodge powered Keselowski to the championship Sunday – but won't be back to defend it next season, as the manufacturer had previously announced several months ago that it would be withdrawing from NASCAR competition for at least 2013.
Gee, after what happened Sunday, how much do you want to bet that there are a lot of officials kicking themselves at the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.?
But the company's decision has been made, its collective mind won't be changed, but let's hope we see Dodge come back with a vengeance in 2014.
4. Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer Put on a Much Better Show Than Last Week
Jeff Gordon proved Sunday that he still has it by winning the race.
Even though his win was overshadowed by Brad Keselowski's championship, Gordon's 87th career victory wasn't necessarily a classic, but it showed he could still get the job done when the opportunity presents itself.
Sure, teammate Jimmie Johnson bombed out of the race and eventual champ Brad Keselowski was happy to just ride around in the final laps, knowing his title was secured, but Gordon and Clint Bowyer—how ironic, given the confrontation the two had a week ago at Phoenix—put on a good show to the checkered flag.
Even more ironic, Bowyer ultimately finished second to Keselowski in the championship battle, 39 points back, while Johnson finished 40 points back.
In a way, now I can see why Bowyer's crew was so angry after Gordon intentionally took out their driver last week at Phoenix.
Who knows how Sunday would have turned out if Bowyer still had a mathematical chance coming in? We'll never know, unfortunately.
Even so, it was a great season by the No. 15 team and their overall performance certainly bodes well for 2013, for sure.
5. Saying Goodbye to One Home and Hello to a New Home for Matt Kenseth
It's not unusual for drivers to switch race teams. It happens virtually every season.
But Sunday's race marked the end of a rather unique era for Matt Kenseth, who after 13 seasons as a full-time driver for team owner Jack Roush, ran his last race in the No. 17 Ford.
Kenseth will drive next season for Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. It should be interesting to see how Kenseth meshes with his two new teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
But if either of his two new younger teammates tries to push their weight around, Kenseth—who was the 2003 Cup champ and is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, including this year's race—simply has to say, "And how many Cup championships and Daytona 500s have YOU won?"
One other thing to note of special significance was not only how hard Kenseth tried until the final lap of the final race of the final season for him at Roush Fenway Racing, high praise has to be given to his crew members and support personnel.
Even after Kenseth announced in August that he was indeed leaving at the end of the season for JGR, it would have been easy for his lame-duck crew to fold and not support him.
On the contrary, and just like the driver they backed, they were there fighting all the way to the end.
That, my friends, is not only the sign of a champion driver, it's the sign of a champion team.
Even though it would have been a great story to see Kenseth end his career at RFR with a title, it wasn't for lack of trying on anyone's part with the No. 17 team.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski