As improbable as it seemed at the time, Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team was in a position to capture a sixth Sprint Cup title, but it all disappeared quickly with less than 50 laps remaining.
Entering the final race of the season, Johnson trailed Brad Keselowski by 20 points. That seemed like an unsurmountable point differential to make up, unless Keselowski crashed or went out with a mechanical failure.
With less than 60 laps remaining, Johnson was leading the race and had a seven-point advantage over the Penske driver. Both teams had to make a final stop for fuel and tires.
Johnson pitted first and unbelievably the rear tire changer didn’t get a lug nut on the left rear tire, an error the NASCAR official quickly pointed out.
After looking like the sixth champion’s trophy was in reach, the struggle to the title again appeared only as a dream. The team made a second stop to tighten the lug nut, lost a lap, and went from a seven-point lead to trail Keselowski by more than 30 points.
A few laps later, Johnson’s quest ended with a broken gear in the transmission, ending his night and assuring Keselowski the title.
I’m sure entering the race Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe, and the entire Penske Racing team felt the pressure of going for the title. When Johnson had grabbed the point’s lead, the team had to think the title had slipped away.
The championship for the “Blue Deuce” was significant for a number of reasons. It was the first title for Keselowski, who is sure to contend for more championships in the future, and marked the first title for Dodge since Richard Petty captured the honors in 1975.
But it also marked the first championship for team owner Roger Penske. Penske has been the owner of 15 cars that won the Indianapolis 500 and has secured titles in open-wheel racing. The past two years, Will Power lost IZOD IndyCar titles in the last race.