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Setting up NASCAR’s championship weekend

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

For the second consecutive season, the champions of each of NASCAR’s three national series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks – will be decided in season finales at Homestead, Fla.

The races are not mere formalities, either.

In each series, there is a distinct possibility the points leader could come up short.

How each of the championship battles shapes up:

Sprint Cup Series

What a difference a week makes.

It appeared Jimmie Johnson was well on his way to a sixth series championship until a blown right-front tire in last weekend’s race at Phoenix cost him the points lead and left him in an enormous hole entering this weekend’s season finale Ford 400 at Homestead.

With one race left, Brad Keselowski has a 20-point advantage over Johnson.

He can claim his first series championship – and first for team owner Roger Penske – by finishing 15th or better in Sunday’s race, regardless of the performance of any other driver. And Keselowski hasn’t finished worse than 11th in his past 11 races.

“All year long we’ve had a team that’s rallied around each other and found a way to persevere through adversity,” Keselowski said.  I’m very, very lucky to have them and I know that.

“This is a team sport. NASCAR racing doesn’t get the credit for that but it really is a team sport. We rely on each other and fall back on each other in times of weakness and boost each other up in times of strength.”

Johnson hasn’t given up.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve won a few championships and I’ve lost a lot,” Johnson said. “Losing isn’t any fun; but we’ll be back next weekend and next year and do the best job we can.”

Nationwide Series

After a wild ending to last weekend’s race at Phoenix, Ricky Stenhouse is in a much better position to win his second consecutive series championship.

He and Elliott Sadler were tied in points entering that race, but Sadler’s late-race wreck leaves him 20 points behind Stenhouse going into the season finale Saturday at Homestead. Rookie Austin Dillon, Sadler’s teammate at Richard Childress Racing, is 25 points behind Stenhouse.

Stenhouse won the championship last season, and this season he has more wins (six), more top-five finishes, more poles and led more laps than a year ago

Stenhouse is taking nothing for granted, however.

“We’ve given up 20 points in one race, so it’s not over till it’s over,” he said.

Sadler is looking for his first NASCAR championship, and he was in good shape before last week’s crash. He finished second in points last year despite not winning a race. This season, he has five wins and more top-five finishes and laps led than a year ago.

“It’s very hard to swallow because I felt really confident about our championship hopes,” Sadler said of his wreck.

Truck Series

James Buescher’s points lead in the Truck Series withstood a late-race wreck at Phoenix, but the chase is close heading into Friday night’s season finale.

Timothy Peters is 11 points behind Buescher and Ty Dillon is 12 back. Mathematically, Joey Coulter remains in contention as well, 29 points behind Buescher.

After some early-season inconsistency, Buescher took the points lead with his sixth-place finish at Martinsville, Va., three weeks ago. The Turner Motorsports driver leads the series in wins (four).

“We finished third in the standings last year and did a lot of work in the offseason,” he said. “I felt like going to Daytona we were going to be a lot stronger team this year.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @Jim_Utter

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