Race Coverage Writing
Jim Utter, Charlotte Observer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Brad Keselowski is your 2012 Sprint Cup Series and social media champion.
And in case there was any doubt, he bounced into the media center long after Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his driver suit soaked in beer – from his sponsor, of course – his cell phone in one hand and an oversized bottle of victory champagne in the other.
Before he could sit down on stage, his team owner, Roger Penske, blurted out, “Did you bring your Tweeter?”
This will not be your father’s NASCAR champion.
Brash, outspoken, a constant presence on Twitter, Keselowski became just the second driver in NASCAR history to win championships in what are the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. Bobby Labonte is the other.
Keselowski’s 15th-place finish Sunday’s secured his first series title but also was aided by his closest competitor, Jimmie Johnson, sitting in the garage with mechanical problems as the race ended.
The race victory went to Jeff Gordon, but the biggest prize was reserved for Keselowski, who tweeted a photo from inside his car before celebrating in Victory Lane.
“It feels really good. I can’t believe how everything just came together over the last – what’s it been, three years?” Keselowski said to crew chief Paul Wolfe.
“I just feel so fortunate to be where I’m at right now in life and with racing, to have guys like (Penske and Wolfe) around me because you’re a product of who you surround yourself by, and I’m surrounded by the best.
“That’s as sweet as life gets, to know that you have people around you that can make up for you when you make mistakes. I know that when I make them, I’ve got people that got my back.”
Keselowski entered Sunday with a 20-point advantage over Johnson and needed to finish 15th or better to clinch the title, regardless of Johnson’s performance.
It appeared for a while Keselowski needed every bit of his cushion.
Johnson had a fast car, and he and crew chief Chad Knaus had a fuel strategy that potentially could have paid big dividends at the finish.
Johnson, however, wouldn’t get there. During a round of green-flag pit stops he was forced to make a second stop because of a missing lug nut. Then, with about 40 laps remaining, smoke filled his car and a broken driveline sent him to the garage.
As Gordon stretched his fuel to claim the victory, Keselowski was forced to pit for gas, but he already had clinched the championship.
“I was stressed out over that yellow-flag cycle at the end because obviously the right call there was probably to pit, but that’s not the way it played out for us,” Keselowski said.
“I’m so thankful that we drove back to 15th so that I don’t have to hear for the rest of my life about how if (Johnson) had not had them problems, he’d have won the championship.”
Keselowski’s championship came in his 125th start, the fewest since Gordon captured his first of four titles in 1995 in 93 starts. At 28, Keselowski is the eighth-youngest to win a first championship.
He finished with five wins – including two during the Chase – and 13 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes in 36 races. His 6.3 average finish in the Chase was identical to last year’s champion, Tony Stewart.
The series title also is the first for Penske, an icon in open-wheel racing whose teams have won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 12 Indy car championships.
“I’ve lauded the people that have been on that stage for so many years in Las Vegas and New York, and to be able to join this elite group and say that I’m a champion in NASCAR means a lot,” Penske said.
“I think it took the guts for me to stay in the sport. We could have thought, well, we won the Indy 500 15 times and we’re a big deal, but I’ll tell you one thing: Until you get here and compete at the top and win, you really know what’s happened.
“I think I just woke up here tonight, and it’s a big thrill.”