By Ken De La Bastide
— 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.
Keselowski and the Penske team were consistent all season long and always seemed to be contending for a win or a top five finish. They will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. Having lost a title will make Johnson and the Lowe’s team even more determined in 2013.
In other racing news:
— There was another significant race over the weekend in Austin, Texas as Formula One returned to the U.S.
The newly built Circuit of the Americas proved to be a challenging track for the drivers and teams and should become a top road course venue in the U.S. for many years to come. It’s a race course that the Indy cars need on their schedule in the near future.
There appeared to be an excellent crowd for the race and here’s hoping it will continue in the future.
— Champion Racing Association officials announced this week that they will be visiting Winchester Speedway three times in 2013. The first race is a 100-lap event on June 29, followed by the traditional Labor Day 100-lapper.
The Winchester 400, one of the best super late model events in the country is set for Oct. 13. Fans need to mark their calendars for this race. I know mine is.