Weekend preview: Keselowski, Johnson taking their talents to South Beach with title on the line
By: NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
The coronation day for Brad Keselowski has arrived. Or has it? After 400 miles Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the racing world will know for sure.
One thing is certain: Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who’s overcome a deficit in the season finale before, won’t go quietly.
Keselowski and Johnson will decide the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title Sunday in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (2 p.m., ESPN), the final chapter in a hard-fought 10-race Chase postseason. What’s yet to be seen is whether the 2012 campaign ends in a crowning achievement for a first-time title contender or a sixth title in an era of dominance for one of the sport’s best.
Keselowski overtook Johnson in the standings last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, capitalizing on Johnson’s tire failure and crash to stretch out a 20-point advantage. He needs only to finish 15th or better Sunday, regardless of how Johnson performs, to win his first Sprint Cup crown, but knows that the same sort of gremlins that derailed Johnson could visit him this weekend.
“I know that the troubles that they had are the same troubles that we could have next week, and so you try not to take anything for granted,” Keselowski said after finishing sixth last Sunday at Phoenix. “You try to just focus on what lies ahead, and we’ve got to do the best job we can at Homestead. That’s where my focus is.”
The 1.5-mile Homestead oval is one of five tracks where Johnson — who will be making his 399th start Sunday in NASCAR’s premier series — hasn’t won during his 11-year career. He’s had success at Homestead with two pole positions and a pair of runner-up finishes, but for the most part, Johnson hasn’t needed to win there.
In four of his five consecutive championship seasons, Johnson has held a comfortable lead heading into the season finale. In the one exception in 2010, Johnson overcame a slight deficit in the standings, coasting home in second place after early misfortune fell on points leader Denny Hamlin.
Johnson will need a much larger rally Sunday, but isn’t ruling out the possibility.
“My brain won’t stop …,” Johnson tweeted from his personal account after the race Sunday. “This championship is far from over.”
Stenhouse poised to snare Nationwide double
Just before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. embarks on a full-time career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he remains on the verge of a whale of a parting gift — his second straight NASCAR Nationwide Series title.
Stenhouse carries a 20-point lead over championship rival Elliott Sadler into Saturday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 300 (3:30 p.m, ESPN2), meaning he’ll need to finish 16th or better to hoist the Nationwide trophy. Stenhouse led Sadler by a much more comfortable 41 points heading into last season’s finale.
“The 20-point lead makes us feel good,” Stenhouse said after running third last weekend at Phoenix, “but we’ve given up 20 points in one race so it’s not over till it’s over. We still have some work to do at Homestead, but it feels pretty good.”
For Sadler, heavy crashes in the third turn at Phoenix have been his late-season nemesis for the past two seasons. Last Sunday was no different, leaving him plenty of catching up to do at Homestead.
“I love the determination and the heart each member of the team has, and although we head to Homestead with a deficit, we are not out of this championship,” Sadler said. “We will fight until the end. We have to finish off what we started, and we are as prepared as we need to be to go out there and make it happen.”
If Stenhouse and Sadler both run into trouble, the door is open for rookie Austin Dillon — third in the standings, 25 points off the lead — to swoop in for the championship. Sprint Cup series regular Joey Logano will likely also be a factor at Homestead, but in the race and not the season-long title hunt. Logano, who has won three of the series’ last five events, will be going for his 10th win in 22 Nationwide starts this year.
Anything goes for Truck title hunt
As much of a constant as parity has been in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, it’s only fitting that a wide-open field of five drivers have mathematical chances at clinching the title. The only certainty heading to the weekend is that it will be a new face on the championship stage.
A first-time series champion will be crowned in Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 (7 p.m., SPEED) at Homestead-Miami Speedway. James Buescher holds a tenuous 11-point lead in the standings, meaning he can clinch the series title with a seventh-place finish, but two of his four rivals are in close proximity.
Timothy Peters ranks second, 11 points back, with top rookie Ty Dillon in third, 12 points off the lead. Joey Coulter (29 points behind) and Parker Kligerman (37 points back) also have mathematical shots at the title, but their title hopes are less realistic.
For Buescher, a championship would be the culmination of a stellar breakthrough season. At Homestead, his Turner Motorsports team will deploy the same tenacious chassis — nicknamed “Honey Badger” — that has carried Buescher to all of his series-best four wins this season, all of which have come on 1.5-mile tracks.
“What can you say, this team knows what it needs to do,” Buescher said. “We’ve been running great all year long and I don’t expect anything less than great for the last race of the year. We’re going to go down to Miami to run our own race and hopefully we’ll be celebrating a championship when the race is done. This team never gives up.”