By Dustin Long
November 18, 2012

It wasn't the perfect race, but it didn't have to be. All Brad Keselowski needed to do was finish 15th or better entering Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to become the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

That's where he finished in a race won by Jeff Gordon. Keselowski's finish made Jimmie Johnson's problems, which relegated him to a 36th-place finish after running at the front much of the race, irrelevant.

"I can't believe how everything came together over the last three years,'' Keselowski said, looking to car owner Roger Penske and crew chief Paul Wolfe. "I feel like the best is yet to come. I really do. I feel like this team ... that we can do anything we set out minds to if we work together like we have over the last few years. I really do.

"I just feel so fortunate to be where I'm at in life and with racing and to have guys like this around me because you're a product of who you surround yourself by, and I'm surrounded by the best and that is as sweet as life gets.''

The Cup title is Keselowski's first and the first for car owner Roger Penske, whose teams have dominated IndyCar racing for years. Keselowski also gave Dodge, which is departing NASCAR after this season, its first Cup title since 1975 with Richard Petty.

Keselowski won the crown with his worst finish in nearly three months.

"I'm so thankful that we drove back to 15th, so I don't have to hear for the rest of my life about how if (Johnson's team) had not had those problems, he would have won the championship,'' Keselowski said.

1. A new champion. Brad Keselowski gave Roger Penske something the renowned car owner had never known -- a NASCAR championship.

Keselowski gave Penske his first NASCAR title two years ago when they won the Nationwide crown and then Keselowski added the Cup title Sunday at Homestead. For a man who has achieved nearly everything in racing, it was the perfect gift for Penske.

"I feel amazing that I've been able to achieve this in racing,'' Penske said. "I've lauded the people that have been on that (championship banquet) 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, and certainly as I said earlier it takes a lot of people, but 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 you compete at the top and win it, you really know what's happened, and I think I just woke up here tonight, and it's a big thrill.''

Rick Hendrick, car owner for Jimmie Johnson, was happy for what Penske could finally celebrate.

"He's one of my best friends,'' Hendrick said. "I respect him so much. I'm really happy for him. He's paid his dues. He's done a lot of hard work in this sport. You want to see friends do well. We were texting before the race, we were (saying) keep it in the family.''

2. Mistakes cost Johnson. The aura of Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is no longer as overpowering as it once was.

Some thought, based mainly on Johnson's past success, that the five-time champion would win the title despite entering Sunday's race 20 points behind Keselowski.

But the Chase for Johnson's team was not as clean as past years -- his crashes at Kansas and Phoenix are prime examples. His title hopes collapsed in the closing laps of Sunday's race when Johnson was penalized because of a missing lug nut, forcing him to return to pit road. A mechanical failure soon after left him sitting in his car in the garage when the checkered flag flew.

"It all unraveled pretty quick,'' said Johnson, whose team had not had a lug nut infraction all season. "You know, the pit road thing, I was just kind of dealing with it, the first two or three laps I got on the track and trying to think through what was going on. Chad had some optimism left in his voice. I wasn't sure why or what. Maybe he was just doing a good job of being a cheerleader.

"But I ran a handful of laps and then I could smell some oil. And when the gear failed, I mean, there was a lot of shaking in the car. I knew it was big and going to be fatal.''

Such late issues are not part of the reputation of a Knaus-led team. For years, Johnson and Knaus have been their best when the odds were against them Johnson came from behind to beat Denny Hamlin win his fifth title in 2010. Sunday they were not, as Johnson fell to third in the points behind race runner-up Clint Bowyer.

"We had to run a bunch of perfect races to win five in a row,'' car owner Rick Hendrick said. "This Chase setting that we have with the points as tight as they are, you just can't have a problem. I know it wasn't from the lack of effort. We had a lug nut start it and then we had a hole in the (drive) line. That's just racing. If you let that destroy you, you'll never be able to win again.''

3. Rollercoaster ride. Jeff Gordon overcame a week of questions and self-doubt that arose after he intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer last week at Phoenix to win at Homestead.

"You can try all you want to try to move past the moment, but, man, it just ate me up inside all week,'' said Gordon, who was fined $100,000 and docked 25 points by NASCAR for his actions. "I just kept going back and forth, decisions that I made and wishing I had made different decisions to backing up reasons why I made the decisions I made. I kept going back and forth from being disappointed, being angry, feeling that I had a right, I didn't have a right. That just ate me up all week.''

Last week's actions also came back to him during Sunday's race. He finished ahead of Bowyer and at one point ran near Joey Logano, who was vocal about his disappointment with Gordon after being collected in the Phoenix crash.

"I had to race with (Bowyer) a couple of times and there were no issues,'' Gordon said. "There was one time where there was a restart and it was me, Joey and Clint and I'm like, "Isn't that the way it goes?' We just really tried to focus on our car, our team and our position and get the most out of it. After it was over, I thought, "Wow, I can't believe we just finished first and second after what happened last week.''

The victory was Gordon's 87th in his career and Gordon has won at least one Cup race at every active track on the schedule except Kentucky.

Gordon's win also allowed him to pass Martin Truex Jr. for 10th in the points.

"This is a great way for us to end this season,'' Gordon said.

4. Dale Jr.'s resurgence. Overlooked by Sunday's events was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 10th to close one of his best seasons in Cup racing -- even with missing two races because of a concussion during the Chase.

He's finished higher in the points six previous times but this was his best season in Cup since 2004, when he won six races and finished fifth in the points.

Earnhardt broke a four-year winless drought this season. His 10 top-five finishes tie for his most in a season since 2005. His 20 top-10 finishes are the most since he had a career-high 21 in 2003 and 2004. The 358 laps he led this season were nearly more than the laps he led the previous three seasons combined.

It's a season that has many of his fans excited for next season.

5. Farewell. Matt Kenseth finished 18th in his farewell for Roush Fenway Racing, one of a few goodbyes said after Sunday's race.

Kenseth has run all but one of his 472 career Cup races with Roush Fenway Racing, running full-time for the team since 2000. He finished with 24 wins, 126 top-five finishes and 227 top-10 finishes with Roush.

Kenseth will drive for Joe Gibbs Racing next season, replacing Joey Logano, who moves to Penske Racing. Logano finished 14th. He'll take over the No. 22 car. Sam Hornish Jr. drove that car, filling in after AJ Allmendinger was let go by the team because of a failed drug test this summer. Hornish, who finished 22nd Sunday, will remain at Penske Racing and drive full-time in the Nationwide Series and run select Cup races.

Also, Ryan Newman finished third in a car sponsored by the U.S. Army, which is not returning to the series as a sponsor after this season.

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