Tonight at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR will crown a new Sprint Cup champion. In all likelihood, it will be Jimmie Johnson, although it could be Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick.
The one thing we know for sure is the new champion won’t be Brad Keselowski, the 2012 title-holder.
Keselowski’s reign as NASCAR champion began here last year at Homestead with a famously drunken post-race interview that drew national attention. And ever since then, he’s frequently been in the spotlight, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not.
In the first four races of the season, Keselowski never finished worse than fourth and led the Sprint Cup points standings, appearing to be solidly positioned to defend his title. And after eight races, he had seven finishes of ninth or better and was the third in points.
But things started to go south at Texas Motor Speedway, in April, where both Penske Cup cars were found with suspension modifications that NASCAR deemed illegal.
After the Texas race, Keselowski blasted NASCAR, not the only time this season he would butt heads with the sanctioning body.
“I don’t have a lot of good things to say right now,” Keselowski said in a somewhat cryptic post-race interview. “I take that back. I have one good thing to say and that was my team and the effort they put in today in fighting back with the absolute bulls–t that’s been the last seven days in this garage area. The things that I’ve seen over the last seven days have me questioning everything I believe in and I’m not happy about it. I don’t have anything positive to say.”
The week after Texas, Keselowski finished sixth at Kansas, but from there went into a deep tailspin. In the next 10 races, he had only one top-10 finish and six finishes of 20th or worse. His average finish in those 10 races was 22.4.
There were some good runs over the summer — second at Watkins Glen, fourth at New Hampshire and sixth at Pocono — but in the last four races of the Sprint Cup regular season, Keselowski’s average finish was 23.5. And at the end of the regular season, he became only the second Cup driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup era to win the championship one year and not make the Chase the next.
There were additional controversies. Keselowski infuriated NASCAR officials when he criticized a decision to implement baseline concussion testing for drivers next year and irked Johnson when he said that hard racing was not in the five-time champion’s wheelhouse.
On the bright side, Keselowski won seven NASCAR Nationwide Series races, including the season-ender at Homestead Saturday night, helping team owner Roger Penske win the owner’s championship, which was certainly a highlight.
Add it all up and it was an unusual season, to say the least.
“There’s a lot of different ways you can look at it, as an optimist or pessimist are the two that stick out,” Keselowski said after the Homestead Nationwide race. “For us, certainly not the year we wanted on the Cup side. We’re not going to hide or run from that.”
Still, Keselowski said there were positives to take away.
“We did achieve some success in different forms this year,” he said. “This owner’s championship is a reflection of that.”
And Keselowski vowed the best is yet to come.
“You look at where we’ve been, last year was incredible to win a Sprint Cup championship in your third season,” he said. “That’s very, very difficult to do. We’ve gone through a lot of different changes, a lot of different transitions. That’s not making any excuses, but we’re going to grow and become stronger. This program is a reflection, this Nationwide program, of how bright our future is, at the Cup level as well.”