|Johnson faces long odds Sunday|
The five-time series champion seemed destined for a sixth Sprint Cup trophy, until a catastrophic, right-front tire failure with 77 laps remaining sent his Lowe’s Chevrolet into the wall and relegated him to a 32nd-place finish last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. In the aftermath of the crash, point-leader Brad Keselowski now holds a 20-point edge over Johnson with a race remaining, and needs only a 15th-place finish Sunday to claim his first career Sprint Cup title. He can also finish 16th while leading a lap, or 17th while leading the most laps.
For Johnson, the task is now Herculean in nature.
Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of just five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tracks where Johnson has never won. He has a pair of runner-up finishes there -- in 2004 and 2010 -- but in his last four Homestead starts, has managed an average finish of only 13.5. He finished 32nd in last year’s season finale.
Kesleowski’s Homestead numbers are also nothing to write home about. In four career starts at the South Florida oval, he has an average finish of 20.25, and has never finished better than 13th. Judging Keselowski by his career numbers has been an exercise in futility this season, however. Time after time in the 2012 Chase, the Miller Lite Dodge driver has posted career-best numbers, holding serve (or even gaining ground) on tracks where he was expected to struggle.
While acknowledging the difficulty of the task at hand, Johnson said his pursuer’s status has certain advantages.
“We have nothing to lose and can gamble and take chances,” he said. “Brad doesn’t have that luxury. This isn’t over. This team never gives up and we don’t intend to now.
He said his sole focus at Homestead is “going down there and winning the race. We typically haven’t had to have that mentality going into this race, but we have shown we can race for the win. We did it in 2010 against Denny (Hamlin), finished second and won the championship. This 48 Lowe’s team can do it again.”
There is precedent for a driver to win the championship, despite trailing with a race remaining. In 1992, underdog Alan Kulwicki claimed the title in come-from-behind fashion, outlasting Bill Elliott and the late Davey Allison in a historic season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, One year ago, Tony Stewart trailed Carl Edwards by three points entering Homestead, then won the season-finale to claim the 2011 title in a tiebreaker.
Stewart is the only driver in the history of the sport to win the championship in such dramatic fashion. Johnson will likely need similar heroics to claim the 2012 crown.