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Race Rewind: Looking back at the Ford 400

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012

Observations

• All week long, the theory that "anything can happen," was trumpeted in regards to the Sprint Cup Series season finale. And once again, it did. Unfortunately for Jimmie Johnson, all the bad and unexpected things happened to him and his team, which left Brad Keselowski in position to officially clinch his first series championship before the race was even over. That may be the only time in recent memory that someone could win something in NASCAR "if the race ended now."

• Could there be a better way to exit a sport than on top? That's what Dodge will do as it's decided not continue fielding a NASCAR program after this season. Dodge fields the fewest amount of teams - two - and walks away with the sport's biggest prize. That's a pretty solid return on investment.

• In the final series standings, the top four finishers are Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Johnson. It's unlikely most fans and media would have done better than having one of three correct in preseason predictions.

How the Chase drivers fared:

No. 1 Brad Keselowski, 2,400 points

Keselowski needed 125 starts to win his first championship, the fewest starts needed to win a title since Jeff Gordon in 1995 (93). At age 28, Keselowski is the eighth-youngest competitor to win a first Cup championship.

No. 2 Clint Bowyer, -39

In Michael Waltrip Racing's first season of making the Chase, Bowyer ended the year as the series runner-up in his first season with the organization.

"When we made the Chase, my realistic goal was to be in the top five," Bowyer said. "I thought that was a reachable goal for our race team the way we had been running leading into the Chase. And to be able to exceed that - you just can't ask for more than that out of a brandnew group like that."

No. 3 Jimmie Johnson, -40

Johnson ended the season with two uncharacteristic races. He had a tire blow at Phoenix from excessive brake heat and then on Sunday, he had a missing lugnut on a pit stop and later was forced to the garage with a problem in an oil line.

No. 4 Kasey Kahne, -55

Kahne was in contention for the race win but during a round of green-flag pit stops late in the race, he was penalized by NASCAR for speeding on pit road.

No. 5 Greg Biffle, -68

Biffle was forced to start the race from the rear due to wrecking his primary car in practice on Saturday. He fell a lap down at one point but rallied to finish fifth.

No. 6 Denny Hamlin, -71

He was one of three drivers who wrecked in practice on Saturday and started from the rear of the field in a backup car.

No. 7 Matt Kenseth, -76

Kenseth looked like he had a car to contend but after taking two tires on an early pit stop, the handling went away the rest of the race. He finished 18th.

No. 8 Kevin Harvick, -79

One week after winning his first race of the season, Harvick finished eighth - exactly where he finished in the series standings.

No. 9 Tony Stewart, -89

It was quite a different ending to the season than a year ago, when Stewart won the race and the series championship. He finished 17th Sunday and one lap down.

No. 10 Jeff Gordon, -97

Gordon's victory Sunday stood in stark contrast to how his Chase started - with a crash and 35th place finish at Chicagoland.

"This team is just awesome," Gordon said. "This is a great way for us to end this season."

No. 11 Martin Truex Jr., -101

Truex appeared to have a car capable of running up front - he led once for 11 laps - but he slapped the wall late in the race which slowed his momentum. He finished sixth.

No. 12 Dale Earnhardt Jr., -155

Since returning to the track after taking two races off nursing a pair of concussions, Earnhardt finished 21st, seventh, 21st and 10th.

3 keys to victory

1 . NASCAR fined Gordon $100,000 and stripped him of 25 points but did not park him for his intentional wreck of Clint Bowyer, allowing him to be on hand for Sunday's race.

2 . Gordon started 15th but made his way into the Top five by Lap 105 and remained there the rest of the race.

3. During a caution on Lap 155, Gordon and most others pit for gas while the top eight cars stayed out. In the end, that change in strategy put him in position to win.

Turning point

Gordon was one of several drivers who were able to take advantage of fuel strategy which allowed them to remain on the track while others were forced to make a late-race stop for gas.

Things would have been different if ...

Johnson would not have had problems. He was on the same strategy as Gordon and would have likely been in the hunt for the win.

Next race

Daytona 500

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: 1 p.m. Feb 24, 2013

TV: Fox

Radio: Motor Racing Network

Last year's winner: Matt Kenseth

Utter: 704-358-5113

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