Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Sports

Brad Keselowski clinches first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship

HOMESTEAD — Pardon me, Brad Keselowski told the television interviewer, if his answers weren't as smooth as intended.

"I got a little bit of a buzz going here," he said. "I've been drinking a little bit."

And between questions he kept right on sipping from a half-full, 48-ounce glass of beer, which several times he raised to fans behind him who broke into cheers.

It was the start of a celebration that no doubt went late into the night after Keselowski clinched NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship on Sunday in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"It feels pretty damn awesome," Keselowski said later.

"I'm not a big guy, and there are moments I haven't been the fastest guy or smoothest guy. I've heard that all my life. But I fought through it, and it's given me fuel for the fire to work harder and smarter and find a way to tune that out and find a way to win."

It wasn't Keselowski's best race; he finished 15th, a lap behind winner Jeff Gordon. And Jimmie Johnson, who entered only 20 points behind, was in position to win the race, and perhaps the title, because of daring strategy.

But on his final pit stop, Johnson, the five-time champion, was penalized for a missing lug nut, and with 43 laps to go was forced from the race with a rear gear problem that, he said, "puked all the gear oil out."

"It did all unravel pretty quick," said Johnson, who finished 36th in the race and third in the standings behind Clint Bowyer, who was second in the race, 1.028 seconds behind Gordon. "We were right there in position and putting pressure on like we needed to; pretty heartbreaking."

It was uplifting for the 28-year-old Kese­lowski, who won the title in just his third full Sprint Cup season and gave his legendary team owner, Roger Penske, 75, his first championship in NASCAR's top series to add to his 12 open-wheel titles.

"I'll tell you, this is at the top of the mark," Penske said. "But this Keselowski is something special. Every week, all through the year he gave us this championship."

"I'll tell you, man," he said as he turned to his driver, "I love you."

The pair could be forgiven if there was relief mixed into their emotions.

Keselowski, from Rochester Hills, Mich., entered needing only a 15th-place finish to secure the title, even if Johnson won. That was a real possibility after the driver of the No. 48 Chevy, during a caution with 108 laps to go, pitted to top off his fuel tank. That put him on track to finish with only one additional fuel stop as opposed to two for most others, including Keselowski.

For his part, Keselowski, in the No. 2 Dodge, found little traction after his first pit stop was more than 16 seconds because of a stuck lug nut, and with 62 laps to go he was 24th.

"I know the scenario, and it's not good," he radioed to Wolfe.

But eight laps later Johnson had his lug nut problem, and his engine trouble removed all doubt.

"I'm just so thankful we drove back to 15th so 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 said.

That said, there is no downgrading his accomplishment.

Keselowski, who this season had five wins and 13 top-five finishes, needed just 125 Sprint Cup starts to win his first title, the fewest since Gordon in 1995 did it in 93. He is Michigan's first Cup champion and joins Bobby Labonte as the only drivers to win Sprint Cup and Nationwide titles.

"I feel like this team can do anything we set our mind to, and I feel like the best is yet to come," Keselowski said. "This is as sweet as life gets."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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