Brad Keselowski put himself in the catbird seat to take his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship by finishing sixth at Phoenix on Sunday.
Keselowski qualified 14th at Phoenix with championship rival Jimmie Johnson qualifying 24th. In the race, both championship contenders were able to steadily work their way towards the front with Keselowski racing for the lead and Johnson running in the top 10.
But Johnson crashed while running seventh on lap 235 of 312 when his right front tyre bead overheated from heavy brake use. The resulting blown tyre put Johnson hard into the wall and he limped to the garage for repairs, rejoining after fifteen minutes of work so that he was able to finish 32nd, 33 laps behind, and salvage a few points from the afternoon.
“I think we had maybe a top 10 or top five day if things worked out in the end,” Johnson said. “Then it started vibrating and coming off turn four the tyre went down and I went straight in the wall. Another 30 or 40 feet around the corner I probably would have just had a flat tyre and not hit the wall. But where it let go I was going to hit the wall. That’s the way it goes.
“I’ve won a few championships and I’ve lost a lot too,” he added. “We’ll be back next weekend and next year and do the best job we can.”
Meanwhile, Keselowski ran a solid race to finish sixth and retake the championship lead from Johnson. Going into next weekend’s season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Keselowski leads Johnson by 20 points and can clinch the championship with a 15th place finish even if Johnson were to take maximum points by winning the race from pole and leading the most laps.
“When I heard he blew a right front tyre you realise that the same thing can happen to you,” Keselowski said. “So you try not to let that get into you too much and focus on what you’ve got to make sure you don’t have the same problem. Obviously, there are no quarantees. We could go next weekend to Homestead and have the same problem and have Jimmie take back the point lead.”
Former NASCAR champion and current TV commentator Dale Jarrett said he’s impressed with young Keselowski’s wise head. “I’ve been amazed at how aware Brad is of everything that’s going on around him,” Jarrett remarked. “He takes in a lot of information and he’s made some very good calls on strategy this year which have helped put him in the position he’s now in.”
The race was won by Kevin Harvick who was able to take the lead in the closing stages from Kyle Busch who dominated the race most of the way leading by far the most laps. Harvick’s win brought an end to a 38-race winless streak for Richard Childress’s Chevrolet team.
With just a few laps to go Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer banged fenders while racing hard for fifth place. The collision sliced Gordon’s left rear tyre and he crashed into the wall. He was able to continue but was black-flagged and before going to the pits he waited for Bowyer to come around. Gordon quite deliberately drove into Bowyer, putting Bowyer and an innocent Joey Logano into the wall. Keselowski was running beside Logano at the time and managed to scrape through unscathed.
The incident brought out a red flag and triggered a scuffle between Gordon’s and Bowyer’s crew. Bowyer’s irate crew came running in Gordon’s direction and one of Gordon’s men was able to pin his driver against a tall box of tools, keeping him out of the wrestling match. Subsequently, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson were marched over to NASCAR’s trailer for a conversation with Mike Helton, John Darby and Robin Pemberton. Expect some penalties and fines to be announced by NASCAR this week.
Gordon and Bowyer have a record of running into each other, including both races this year at the half-mile Martinsville bullring. “I just had it with him,” Gordon said. “He’s got into me too many times this year, and I’ve just had it with him. I had to respond.”
Bowyer offered his view of the clash with Gordon. “It’s just a shame,” Bowyer groaned. “The last person in the world you want to get into anything on the racetrack with is Jeff Gordon. The track was extremely slick and we were on worn tyres. I didn’t even need to pass him. I was biding my time and I barely touched him. Then I felt him get into turn three and try to turn me and he missed. Then they told me on the radio he was waiting for me.
“It makes us all look like a bunch of retards. It’s pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best the sport has ever seen to act like that. It’s just completely ridiculous.”
Bowyer was asked if he thought Gordon should be penalised or suspended. “There’s nothing you can do to fix it,” he replied. “It’s over with now. But when you’re disrupting a championship run, it’s too bad. They ask us not to do that in the drivers’ meeting.”
Whether you like it or not, it’s a perfect scenario for NASCAR leading into next weekend’s season-closer in South Florida.