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Murto: Newest champion good for NASCAR


By Craig Murto - sports@nvdaily.com

Brad Keselowski won his first stock car race on June 2, 2000, in the Factory Stock division at Michigan's Dixie Motor Speedway.

On Sunday the 28-year-old won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. It was also the first Cup title for car owner Roger Penske, and the first for Dodge since their return to Cup racing ... in the year they depart the sport once again.

With 50 laps to go at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it appeared that Jimmie Johnson might actually win his sixth championship. The race appeared to be going green until the end, and because of pit strategy under the final caution Johnson only had to pit once for fuel, whereas Keselowski -- who stayed out during the last caution -- needed to pit twice.

But then the unthinkable happened; the five-time championship-winning pit crew made a mistake and left a lug nut off Johnson's left-rear tire. He had to come back to the pits. Then, a few laps after his second pit stop, Johnson retired the car with mechanical issues. Owner Rick Hendrick told Speed Channel's Bob Dillner that a lug nut was kicked up on pit road during the last stop and broke an oil line in the rear of the No. 48 car.

Jeff Gordon went on to win the race, the 87th of his career but only the second of 2012. Clint Bowyer finished second, and one can only guess what would have happened had Bowyer reached Gordon's bumper after they brawled in Phoenix. Keselowski finished 15th -- which would have won the title for him regardless of what Johnson did -- and Johnson finished 36th. Bowyer dropped Johnson to third in points.

Keselowski becomes the third Cup driver to win the championship within three years, the others being Dale Earnhardt (who did it in his second season) and Jeff Gordon. Keselowski and Bobby Labonte are the only drivers to win both the Cup and Nationwide titles.

Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, is a former racer in what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, once known as Busch North. He wasn't a bad driver, and at 35 many think he gave up driving too soon. But it's doubtful he would have reached the level of success he now enjoys as a Sprint Cup champion crew chief.

Wolfe was also Keselowski's crew chief in 2010 when they won the Nationwide title, Penske's first NASCAR title. They are the only crew chief-driver combination to win both championships.

Penske is no stranger to winning. He was a winning sports car racer in the early '60s, and actually won a NASCAR race at Riverside, Calif., in 1965. As a car owner he won 24 national championships in series such as Trans-Am, Can-Am, ALMS, 12 IndyCar titles and 15 Indy 500 wins.

As an owner he's won 76 Cup races with seven different drivers. He owned cars in 29 seasons, and competed for the title 23 times. His drivers included Mark Donohue, Dave Marcis, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch. But it took Brad Keselowski to win his first Cup championship.

Penske stated that when Keselowski joined Penske Racing, "He galvanized the team." Compare that to Kurt Busch, whose well-publicized tirades and tantrums surely had the opposite effect.

Penske's former driver, Kurt Busch, may have replaced Regan Smith at Furniture Row Racing, but Smith proved he can get the job done by winning the Nationwide race at Homestead in his debut for JR Motorsports. He'll be in that car full time, racing for the championship. Ricky Stenhouse grabbed the 2012 Nationwide title, joining Sam Ard, Larry Pearson, Randy Lajoie, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Martin Truex Jr. as drivers who won back-to-back Nationwide titles.

The best finish of the weekend was in the Camping World Truck Series, when Cale Gale pinned Kyle Busch's truck against the wall to win the race by inches. Rideless for next year at this time, Gale had nothing to lose. He became the series' 15th winner and ninth first-time winner this season. James Buescher grabbed his first NASCAR championship by six points over Timothy Peters.

Championship weekend at Homestead was big for a lot of drivers, especially Brad Keselowski. He's aggressive on the racetrack, and honest when he speaks. His personality may even put some fans back in the stands. He'll be a good champion; and he's come a long way since June 2, 2000.

-- Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.


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