When darkness falls over South Florida on Sunday evening, after a little more than three hours of racing at Miami-Homestead Speedway, a makeshift stage will be hauled onto the frontstretch of the 1.5-mile track. The championship-winning driver will park his car nearby, and then he'll stride into the bright lights and leap into the raised arms of his crew. And just then, for the first time in his life, Brad Keselowski, in one of the great underdog stories in NASCAR history, will finally experience what it feels like to be a Sprint Cup champion.
There's an outside shot that Jimmie Johnson -- winner of five of the last six Cup titles -- could pass Keselowski on Sunday, but the odds of Johnson overcoming 20 points are nearly as long as the 400 miles of the race. Even if Johnson takes the checkered flag and earns the maximum amount of bonus points at Homestead by leading the most laps, Keselowski merely has to finish 15th or better to capture the title. Considering that Keselowski hasn't finished worse than 11th in the first nine Chase races and he's only come in 16th or worse once since mid-June... well, you have to like the chances of the 28-year-old Keselowski and his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team.
Yet Johnson remains steadfastly optimistic, even though no driver in the Chase era (which began in 2004) has overcome a deficit this large in the final race to steal the title. Last Sunday at Phoenix, Johnson blew a right front tire, hit the wall, suffered significant damage to his chassis and wound up 32nd -- and in the process he surrendered the points lead. Now Johnson has to hope something fluky happens to Keselowski: that he has an equipment failure (like Johnson at Phoenix); that he gets caught up in a crash; or that he suffers a brain cramp and wrecks himself. All of this is possible -- in racing, as we all know, luck plays more of a role than it does in stick-and-ball sports -- but it certainly isn't probable.
Still, Johnson has taken to twitter this week to remind his 332,000 followers that he still genuinely believes his title chances didn't explode in the smoke of his wreck at Phoenix. "My brain won't stop," he tweeted on Monday, "The championship is far from over." The next day he added succinctly, "This isn't over."
But I think it is. Though Johnson could point to Keselowski's 20.2 career average finish at Homestead -- and the fact that Keselowski has only wound up 15th or better once in his four career starts in South Florida -- the daunting truth facing Mr. Five Time is that past statistics simply don't apply to Keselowski this season. In the first nine Chase races in 2012, Keselowski has finished higher than his career average in each event. There's little reason to believe this trend won't continue on Sunday.
I spent some time with Carl Edwards last week at Phoenix analyzing the danger areas of the Homestead track for a short story in this week's issue of the magazine. Edwards, a two-time winner at Homestead, pointed to two places: The entry of Turn 1, where the setting sun is in the eyes of the drivers in the middle portion of the race; and the exit of Turn 4, where in the closing laps drivers often go three- and even four-wide as they charge onto the frontstretch. Look for Keselowski to be extremely cautious in these two areas. Because if he can avoid making contact with another driver in these hazard zones, Keselowski should cruise to the title with relative ease.
But there are two drivers who likely will rub some paint (and then some) on Sunday: Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon, whose feud last weekend at Phoenix may have been the single most engaging story of the 2012 season. After Bowyer unintentionally bumped Gordon late in the race, Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer, which triggered a massive brawl in the garage between the team's two pit crews. NASCAR failed to suspend Gordon for this race, which came as a surprise to many observers (Gordon was hit with $100,000 fine and a 25-point deduction), so this means Bowyer seemingly has NASCAR's blessing to administer some old-school payback to Gordon on Sunday.
Will it happen early? Late? At all? No one but Bowyer and his team know. But my hunch is that Bowyer will send a statement to the rest of the garage and boot Gordon, hard, into the wall during the race. Bowyer will be smart enough to do it in a way that won't put Johnson and Keselowski in harm's way -- I'm thinking this will happen in the closing laps with the two title contenders well in front of Bowyer and Gordon -- but it could end up being the one highlight from this race that makes it onto the all the national news broadcasts on Monday morning.
Yes, Round 2 of Bowyer vs. Gordon is coming -- and so is a new NASCAR champion named Brad Keselowski.