Who can handle the heat in Miami? | November 20, 2012
After 36 races the end was finally in sight as for the last time in 2012 NASCAR circus rolled into town as they arrive at the final race track of the season, Homestead-Miami Speedway for the conclusion of what has been an enthralling Chase for the Sprint Cup. The one and half mile circuit has been the season ender for ten years and has seen some epic finishes. This year promised to be no different with either Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski poised to take the Sprint Cup.
As it stands before the race, Brad Keselowki is (if you pardon the pun) in the driving seat. He is 20 points ahead of Johnson after Johnson’s unfortunate puncture last week saw him finish outside the top thirty. What it means in terms of the race is that if Johnson is to win the race (and no Hendrick Motorsport’s car has ever won at HMS) then Keselowski has to finish in the top fifteen. Something that he has done in every race of The Chase so far so it seemed an almost certainty that he would be champion.
Come qualifying on Saturday and it was Joey Logano who briefly stole the limelight away from the two title contenders when he took his second pole of the season in a time of 30.672 seconds (176.056 mph). However the surprise was that Keselowski was able to qualify in third, at tracks similar to HMS he has struggled to stay in the top twenty in qualifying. While Johnson who in contrast has been running very strongly at this style of track, by his own high standards struggled and will start in tenth. As with all title races there are going to be potentially two races on track, the race for the win (as there are still plenty of drivers who want to make a statement) and the all important race for the Championship.
As the green flag drops its second place Marcos Ambrose who breezes clear of the pack going into turn one and immediately starts to pull away. It is a cautious start though for Kesekowski as he quickly gets passed by Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer (who has an outside shot of winning the Sprint Cup that would need him to win and for Keselowksi and Johnson to both fail to finish). A few laps later Kyle Busch also gets by the number 2 car as he slips down to fifth. Meanwhile Johnson is also just taking it easy as he stays in tenth. Its an often quoted racing maxim but one that is very true, ‘you can’t win a race in the first few laps but you can lose one’ and both title contenders are certainly taking heed of this.
While the 2 and 48 cars are taking it easy the 18 of Kyle Busch is showing that he has some great speed and is pushing his car hard. He quickly gets by Bowyer and then Edwards and by lap 14 he is right behind the leader. One lap later his name goes to the top of the tree as he easily goes around Ambrose. While Busch eases away from the chasing pack there is an almighty tussle for second, third and fourth place. Edwards has had a very disappointing season and is desperate to prove a point with a high finish and he is racing like he is one of the title contenders on the last few laps. While the actual race for the title is still very much a cautious one with Keselowski still slipping a little further down the top ten and Johnson is now closing down the gap between them.
The first round of green flag pit stops get underway and for the title contenders its a case of just doing every thing correctly and precisely and importantly not making any mistakes. This goes for the driver ensuring that he doesn’t break the pit row speed limit and for the pit crew to ensure all tyres are correctly fitted and no penalties are committed. Just like clockwork both drivers come in and out with out incident, but a slightly faster stop for Johnson allows him to get in front of Keselowski. But beating him is only part of Johnson’s job, and he has to hope for some issues for the number 2 car. The two cars then race side by side, with Ambrose in front of them, with one wrong move by either of them could potentially end their title hopes. Both are professionals though and although the racing is hard it is fair and in the end Keselowski is able to get passed both Johnson and Ambrose. Johnson though is in constant pursuit of the number 2 and he gets by Ambrose and closes the gap back up. I shouldn’t ignore though the race out front which is still being dominated by Kyle Busch despite the best efforts of Edwards to close him down. Its going to take something special by a driver to get close to Busch today.
As if on command the first caution of the day comes out and all the leaders come to pit row. 18 wins the race off pit row but for Keselowski the stop doesn’t quite go as planned as a slight issue with the right rear wheel means that he drops outside the top ten and will restart in 14th. While Johnson has a solid stop and gets off pit road in sixth place, putting him in a very strong position to mount a challenge for the lead. The restart sees Busch maintain his lead but a few cars back Martin Truex Jr makes a very bold move as he drops down into the apron of the track to go three wide with Matt Kenseth and Edwards and is able to make the move stick and grab second place. A few laps later Busch reports that his engine is ‘blowing up’ but all looks well as he is able to keep at bay Truex Jr who is harassing the 18 car for the lead. Clearly Busch is mistaken about his issues as he is able to pull away from the 56 car while Truex Jr slips back and comes under fire from Edwards and Bowyer.
A moment of collective breath holding quickly comes over the race when Jeff Gordon comes up behind fourth place Bowyer. Last week Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer (for which he was fined $100,000 and docked 25 Championship points) for causing the crash of him and Johnson way back at the Martinsville race in April. The incident caused a fight to break out in the pit lane and both drivers made it very clear their complete dislike for each other. But everybody breaths easy again after Gordon passes Bowyer with no incident or hint of one. Up front the 18 and 56 cars are again going toe to toe diving under each other and each one desperately trying to make a move stick. Eventually Truex Jr is able to hold his line and gets some clean air between him and Busch but a backmarker soon closes that gap and the two very nearly make contact when Busch slides ever so slightly up the track while attempting a move for the lead.
Another round of green flag stops get underway and it is Keselowski who comes in first and this time has a clean stop. Johnson meanwhile elects to stay out a few more laps which allows him to take the lead for one lap and get an all important championship point for leading a lap. At the front of the field the 18 is back in the lead pulling off a great move to pass the 56 on the pit row exit lane. But Busch isn’t able to establish any sort of lead as the second caution of the day is thrown, again for debris. Once again all the leaders come to pit row and Johnson pulls off a great bit of pit strategy as he only takes 2 tyres while most of the field go with four. This puts him in the lead at the restart while Keselowski is down in 15th which means that with just over a hundred laps to go there is only point in the championship race.
On the restart Johnson is able to put his new two tyres to very good use as he is able to hold his lead, while the 2 slips a place to 16th which means that Johnson is now the Championship leader by a single point. But he isn’t able to pull out any sort of lead as the yellow flags are thrown for the third time as Ricky Stenhouse Jr (who won the Nationwide series the day before) gets into the outside wall hard and blows a tyre. This caution works out perfectly for Johnson as he comes back to pit row to take the other two tyres that he didn’t get previously. Keseleowki opts to stay out and will restart in seventh while Johnson will restart in ninth. The restart sees Busch and Kasey Kahne battle for the lead and for the next few laps its a back and forth between the 18 and 5, neither of them giving an inch.
Back in the title chase Keselowski has not been having a good run as he has slipped back to eleventh while Johnson is up to fourth. If the race stays green then Johnson will only need to make one more stop while Keselowski is going to have to make two. At this stage in the race the ball is definitely in Johnson’s court and he is looking like he is going to be able to over come the deficit and take the title.
Busch has been able to put some distance between himself and the 5 car and has a lead of nearly two seconds, while Kahne is slipping back and has been caught by Truex Jr. But despite his best efforts he is unable to find away past Kahne’s car and appears to ease off and he falls away from the 5 car. Kahne’s challenge for the win comes to an end when during the next round of green flag stops he speeds in the pit lane meaning that he will have to come back through. Keselowski and his pit crew have been carefully calculating his fuel window in order to avoid a second green flag stop towards the end of the race which could hand the title to Johnson. The cars are not equipped with a fuel gauge and the only way of knowing how many laps of fuel are left is to use the information from previous stops to know how much you put in and how many laps it lasted. These calculations can of course cause problems and sure enough Keselowski radios his team to tell them he is out of fuel! Luckily he runs out close enough to pit row that he cruises into his pit stall at virtually normal racing speed and is not the disaster it could have been. But what it does mean is that Johnson is now in the lead (thanks to not needing to pit just yet) and Keselowski is back in 24th place.
But the bad luck isn’t done just yet as Johnson comes to pit row and brief lapse in concentration on the part of one of the pit crew sees Johnson leave his pit stall with one lug nut missing. This means that he has to come back to pit row for it to be put back and on and will see him fall down the field and go a lap down. The ball is back in Keselowski’s court. But Johnson has been able to pull off some amazing drives this year and all it takes is for one caution and the race will be wide open again. But just a few laps later the fat lady finally starts to sing as Johnson falls off the pace and comes to pit row taking his car straight to the garage with what looks to be a terminal problem. It might not be in the style that he had hoped but this means that Keselowski is now the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion! A feat he has accomplished in only his third full season, which ties, ironically, Jimmie Johnson.
At the front of the race though it is still Busch and Truex Jr in first and second with Jeff Gordon in third. However both the 18 and 56 car will have to stop again while Gordon is being told that he is good on fuel until the end of the race. Keselowski no longer has to worry about his fuel situation so he comes to pit row to top off his fuel and although it puts him a lap down it wont matter to him.
With 13 laps left both the 18 and 56 come to pit row, handing the lead to Gordon. In terms of the Chase standings second place in the race is currently occupied by Clint Bowyer and if he finishes there it will mean that he pips Johnson to second place in the standings. Bowyer tries all he can but he can’t close down the gap on Gordon and in the end he has to settle for second place as Jeff Gordon takes his second win of the season and his 87th win of his career.
As for the rest of the Chase contenders, the final positions were Kahne dropped a place to fourth after finishing 21st. Greg Biffle climbs two places to fifth after finishing in 5th. Denny Hamlin falls one place to sixth rounding off a very disappointing Chase after finishing a poor 24th. Matt Kenseth says goodbye to his Roush Fenway Racing team with an 18th place race finish and falling one place in the Championship to seventh. Kevin Harvick finishes in eighth, after an eighth place finish in the race. Tony Stewart is in ninth after a very average Chase by his high standards with a 17th place finish. Jeff Gordon moves up one place to tenth, it would have been a seventh place finish but for last weeks penalty. Martin Truex Jr falls one place to eleventh after eventually finishing in 6th. Rounding out the Chase contenders is Dale Earnhardt Jr who was always going to finish last after missing a couple of races, but finished with a solid 10th.
All in all it was a very good race that showed that NASCAR can always provide the drama when it needs to and with the change to the cars for next season, sets everything up nicely for what should be an action packed 2013 season.