HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR’s future and its old guard etched their way into NASCAR history Sunday with a dash of champagne, a trickle of tears, and a little bit of a beer buzz.
Brad Keselowski, a 28-year-old who rose from the abyss of a family bankruptcy, and owner Roger Penske, a 75-year-old motorsports icon, rose together as NASCAR’s wonderful odd couple.
A kid who feels naked without his cellphone, who tweets incessantly, coupled with a man who has spent a good portion of his life on a rotary phone. Who knew? Together, they dialed up the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title, easily running away from a perennial champion while embracing all the demands that fall on the guy running at the head of the pack on the last race of the season.
“We did it,” Keselowski said during a live interview on “SportsCenter,” holding a large glass of Miller Lite and admittedly feeling a bit of a buzz. “Why make it any more complicated than that?”
To his point, it was easy-peasy. Jimmie Johnson had to make up 20 points on Keselowski, and looked as if he might have a shot at it until a loose lugnut began the quirky events that denied a fabulous finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Johnson, a five-time champion, ended his day in the garage, with his team frantically trying to put his No. 48 Chevy back in racing shape after a gear failure sent him to the garage with 40 laps to go.
That was preceded by the loose lugnut during a pit stop with 54 laps to go — and a one-lap penalty — the first shot to the heart that essentially destroyed Johnson’s day.
“It all unraveled pretty quickly,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why or when the gear failed; I knew it was going to be fatal.”
“When Jimmie lost that lugnut, it gave us four aces in our hand,” Penske said.
Keselowski finished 15th to easily capture the title by 39 points over Clint Bowyer and 40 over Johnson.
Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, won the race, followed by Bowyer, his contentious sparring partner. There were no incidents between the drivers, despite the drama that unfolded at Phoenix last week
Johnson’s team, banking on fuel-mileage strategy, may have been in position to cut down on his 20-point deficit had his crew not made that initial mistake. Johnson actually led by seven points with 56 laps to go before pitting two laps later, setting up his quick downfall.
Instead, Keselowski celebrated his first NASCAR Cup victory, to go along with his Nationwide Series title in 2010.
He drove a long road to get there. He pushed through the bankruptcy of his family’s race team, which could no longer support his son’s race team. Keselowski finally caught a break when Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered him a ride for his Nationwide team in 2007.
NASCAR — which is trying to rope in a cooler audience — should get a nice “hip” uptick with Keselowski, a working man’s kind of champion from Michigan who is different from Johnson, a California cool guy who has never quite resonated with NASCAR fans.
Keselowski isn’t a shy guy. He joked about his newfound fame, saying that he “always wanted to date a celebrity. I really do.” Beyond potential dates, he should obviously pick up a few more Twitter followers and gather momentum into next year despite moving to Ford. Dodge is leaving NASCAR after this season.
There was an obviously sentimental twist beyond Keselowski’s story of perseverance.
Penske has a distinguished history in motorsports — his IndyCar teams have won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 12 championships — but this marked his first NASCAR title.
“This guy Keselowski is something special, and for me it’s a lifelong goal when you think about Hendrick, you think about [Dale] Earnhardt and [Richard] Childress and [Joe] Gibbs and just to mention all the guys that have been up there, and we’ve been close but we’ve never delivered,” Penske said. “But this guy here delivered it for us. Every week all through the year, gave us this championship. Boy, I’ll tell you, man, I love you.”
Keselowski finally showed up to the post-race news conference in the media room. He brought an empty oversized bottle of champagne with him.
“I feel the best is yet to come,” he said. “I really do.”
The happy buzz of a champion.