NASCAR at Homestead-Miami Preview: So long, 2012

Jonathan Ferrey

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season draws to a close with this weekend's Ford Eco-Boost 400. Brad Keselowski holds a relatively comfortable point lead, a far cry from Tony Stewart's dramatic race and championship victories of a year ago.

My oh my, where has the season gone?

Wherever it went, the time has come to put the finishing touches on the 2012 edition of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Sunday's season-ending Ford Eco-Boost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Of course, the number one order of business in South Florida is to crown this year's champion. Brad Keselowski holds a 20-point edge on Jimmie Johnson entering the final weekend of the year. That is a relatively comfortable position, far more so than in the previous two seasons when Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards led the standings into the last race. Hamlin spun early in 2010, damaging his Toyota and ruining his hopes of derailing Johnson's bid for a fifth-straight title.

Last season's final battle was an all-time classic, as Tony Stewart rallied twice from the rear of the field to win the race and tie Edwards - who finished second - in the standings. Stewart's win total - five to Edwards' one - gave him his third championship in the first tie-breaker in top-level stock car racing.

Keselowski's job is simple: he must finish 15th or better Sunday, and he will claim the title even if Johnson leads all 267 laps and laps the field a half-dozen times. A 15th-place finish in today's NASCAR might not be an accomplishment to celebrate, but it certainly isn't one to sneeze at either. Teams can't afford to have much trouble at all if they're going to finish 15th in a Sprint Cup race.

Finishing in the top-15 has been no issue for Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing team this season. Through 35 races, he has finished outside those front 15 spots just six times. Most of those came early in the year, with a crash in the Daytona 500 and then a spate of races where his team fought issues with the new electronic fuel injection systems implemented this season.

Since the June 10 Pocono 400, Keselowski has just one non-top-15, a 30th at Bristol after an accident. His worst finish of the Chase is an 11th at Charlotte after he ran out of fuel while leading.

Johnson's job is also simple. He must do what he has done 60 times in his career but never once at Homestead-Miami: win the race. Even then, it will take a mistake by Keselowski, one much bigger than Hamlin's brain fade in 2010 that ruined his dream season, for the man known as "five-time" to become "six-time." In 11 previous races at Homestead, Johnson's best result are a pair of runner-up finishes in 2004 and again in that 2010 event.

There are plenty of other storylines entering the final weekend. Dodge makes its exit from the Sprint Cup ranks, potentially with its first championship since Richard Petty dominated the series in 1975. Former Sprint Cup champ Matt Kenseth makes his last appearance in Jack Roush's No. 17 Ford before moving over to Joe Gibbs Racing. He hops into the No. 20 Toyota co-sponsored by Atlanta-based Home Depot next season, pushing Joey Logano - once touted as the future of the sport and especially JGR - out the door. Stewart, the three-time and - for one more weekend - reigning champ, makes his 500th-career start.

And of course everyone will be watching and waiting to see if Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon tangle again following the brouhaha in Phoenix.

With 10,175 laps down, only 267 circuits remain in the 2012 campaign. We better enjoy them, because a bitterly cold and quiet winter awaits.

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