by Ryan Isley
When NASCAR switched over to the Chase for the Sprint Cup starting in the 2004 season, they did so in hopes that the championship wouldn’t be decided before the final race of the season. When they changed the points system starting last season, they did so with the same hopes in mind. They have to be happy this weekend.
For the third consecutive season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship will come down to the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Brad Keselowski leads Jimmie Johnson by 20 points with just one remaining race standing between him and that trophy that all drivers covet. No matter what Johnson does, Keselowski can lock him out with a finish of 15th or better in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday.
If it is true that numbers don’t lie, they can start engraving the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy with the name “Brad Keselowski.”
After all, Keselowski has an average finish in the nine races in the Chase of 5.3 and has not finished worse than 11th since the Chase started. In fact, Keselowski has finished in the top-13 in 20 of the last 21 races and has just two finishes outside the top-15 in the last 26 races.
Sounds like a sure thing that Keselowski will finish in the top-15 and hoist that championship trophy when all is said and done this weekend. But as Johnson said on Thursday, this is no normal race and it isn’t a given that the driver of the No.2 Miller Lite Dodge will pull off the finish he needs to win his first title.
“I think that to think that a top-15 finish is a lay-up is tough,” Johnson said. “The weight of this race – I don’t care who you are – it will show up at some point in time and thoughts will run through your head and will all that being said, a 15th-place finish isn’t a lay-up for these guys.”
And Johnson is right.
Despite the success that Keselowski has had in 2012, the fact remains that he has never been in this position before. And his track record at Homestead would give you enough food for thought that he doesn’t have the championship wrapped up quite yet. In his four starts at Homestead, Keselowski has an average finish of 20.3 with a career-best finish of 13th in 2010. In the other three starts, he has finished 23rd (2008), 25th (2009) and 20th (2011).
In contrast, Johnson has an average finish of 13.5 at Homestead in 11 races with four top-5s and seven top-10s.
The 37-year-old Johnson has gone to Homestead with the lead four times in his career and has raised the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy over his head all four times. Knowing what he needed to do, he finished ninth in 2006, seventh in 2007, 15th in 2008 and fifth in 2009 to win the championship. Then in 2010, he trailed Matt Kenseth heading to Homestead and finished second to win his fifth straight title as Kenseth came in ninth.
And remember – the last time Keselowski took the lead in this championship chase, Johnson answered with back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas. When the chips are down, there isn’t a driver in NASCAR right now who is better at responding to the pressure.
Maybe that is because he has been there and done that five times and he knows the magnitude of the situation as he likes to call it.Call it what you will, but until someone proves otherwise, I will take Johnson when he has a chance in the last race.
My prediction is that Jimmie Johnson makes me look like I knew what I was talking about when I said after his win at Martinsville three weeks ago that he was going to wrap up his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in seven seasons.
I will take Johnson to win and lead the most lasp for a maximum of 48 points (ironic, isn’t it), with Keselowski finishing 21st for 23 points. That will give Johnson the championship with a 2399-2394 advantage.
No matter what happens, NASCAR can’t be upset because their points system did exactly what they wanted it to do – make all 36 races matter.
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