The almost-new NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, hard at Tweeting, here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 9, 2012. Oops, suddenly after 10 months, NASCAR officials decide to slap him with a $25,000 fine for this? Must be somebody's idea of a joke, isn't it?
By Mike Mulhern
In the end, it's all so anticlimactic.
Months of build-up, weeks of tension, and finally down to upstart Brad Keselowski versus five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
And then, suddenly, it was all but over, out in the Arizona desert.
Johnson blowing a right-front tire and slapping the fourth turn wall hard, just as Keselowski was taking the lead, late in the Phoenix 500K.
So now it looks like just the matter of going through the motions, the last 400 miles of the endless NASCAR season, and Keselowski will be taking his first Sprint Cup championship...and car owner Roger Penske will at long last finally have a Cup title, some 40 years after he put his first stocker on a NASCAR track.
And it looks like it will be crew chief Paul Wolfe at the head table in Las Vegas for the banquet in a couple of weeks, not Chad Knaus.
Still Keselowski and Wolfe have to make it to the finish line.
If they finish 15th or better in Sunday's 400, or 16th or better and lead a lap, the championship is theirs, no matter what Johnson and Knaus do.
Somehow it doesn't seem it should be this simple.
Maybe NASCAR officials should have made this season finale a little more exciting by docking Keselowski 10 or 20 points for that 'illegal' cell phone at Phoenix, instead of asking for a $25,000 donation.
Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But now about the only question really is if Dodge/Chrysler will have any execs here to congratulate Keselowski, Wolfe and Penske for giving them the first Cup championship since 1975....back when Richard Petty was in his prime.
Wonder if Chrysler/Dodge will even put one of those big championship ads in the newspaper.....
Or maybe the Dodge officials will simply be too embarrassed that this is their last NASCAR Cup race, that they're pulling out of this sport when the season ends Sunday night...and that they somehow managed to let this championship team get away.
Mr. Five-Time on the inside, Mr. Soon-to-be on the outside. A heck of a chase for these two (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
When Wolfe eventually hangs it up as a crew chief, if he wants to move to the tv booth....well, he's not the flamboyant type, like it seems to take to get a tv job these days.
Wolfe is about as low-keyed as they come in this garage.
But he's made a reputation this season as a gambler, a man willing to buck the book. And he's only been a big-league player, really, for three seasons.
Now all Wolfe and Keselowski have to do is cruise. But Wolfe insists "15th is not a cake walk. We know we've performed way above that, and we're capable of much more than that. But it's going to be tough.
"By no means do we want to go into Homestead thinking we're just going to ride around and finish 15th and all is well...because that's scary to even think about right now."
Paul Wolfe. As usual, deep in thought. This low-keyed crew chief will never be mistaken for Larry McReynolds.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Knaus kept Johnson in the title chase this fall with that remarkable recovery at Kansas. And Wolfe was impressed:
"Chad's results speak.... But those guys define a championship caliber team -- a team that can take a really bad day and turn it into a good points day.
"The days when you have winning cars it seems things can be easier. But it's being able to overcome adversity and maximizing points on bad days...And that's something we've seen from that bunch. You never know what they're capable of until race day."
Likewise with Keselowski and Wolfe. Have they overachieved this season? Or is this their new normal.?
Kansas was almost the end of the line for Jimmie Johnson, but brilliant work by his crew saved the day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Of course there is plenty of 'team' in all this. But also a lot of Brad Keselowski. He's become more this season than just a cog in the machine. He's become a polished and popular driver.
And every time it seemed he ought to be taking a punch into the canvas, he has proven remarkably resilient.
"He's a great leader," Wolfe says. "He's a great motivator, a guy not willing to give up. He'll do whatever it takes to find success.
"There is something about when Brad's around; he finds a way to motivate everyone around him....just the sense in how he carries himself."
Indeed, Keselowski has been a motivator for the media too, which has found his style refreshing.
(And why NASCAR decided, after 10 months now, to fine him for carrying his Twitter phone is strange...)
Fast? Now Jimmie Johnson is fast. Greg Biffle is fast. Ryan Newman is fast.
Fast is not quite how you'd describe Brad Keselowski.
Smart, hell yes.
Wolfe considers his driver a working class hero.
"He works very hard," Wolfe says. "He's maybe not the guy that's going to go out there and set the fastest lap time. But he's a guy that's going to go out there and understand the kind of feel of what he's going to need to have a shot to win at the end of the race, and that's very important.
"There are a lot of guys out there capable of putting fast laps down, running fast from time to time. But when you look at Brad -- he's that guy that's always just hanging out there until it really counts.
"A lot of that is just his hard work in trying to understand how a race is going to play out...what he needs his car to do at the end of the race.
"And a lot of these races are very long events. The track changes a lot."
Johnson wins Texas....in a mano e mano with Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson and Knaus are renowned for their excellent in the 10-race playoffs. They once ripped four straight chase wins to rally back to win the title. And they'd won two straight, at Martinsville and Texas, before faltering at Phoenix.
But Keselowski and Wolfe kept Johnson and Knaus honest every step of the way...right from that sneaky late-race charge to win the chase opened at Chicago.
"It's been a great chase for us, no doubt about it," Wolfe says. "We didn't always have the best stats, maybe. But we've grown so much as a team...I think we've proven that throughout the chase.
"We felt we needed to go into Phoenix and win that race to put us in position to have a shot at it going into the final race.
"I was definitely caught off guard by Jimmie (who qualified poorly, then hit the wall). I expected those guys to run much better than they did. It seemed they were never able to get it turned around all weekend. And then they had the tire issue."
That, ironically, caught Wolfe and Keselowski off-guard. They'd just taken the lead when Johnson went out, and yet there was a question about right-front tires, so they decided to back off a bit. That nearly bit them, in that last lap melee.
Remember back when? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now it's Cruise City?
"We're in a much better situation than we could have hoped for going into the final race," Wolfe says.
Homestead? "We know this is a great track for us....we've been very strong on the 1-1/2-miles. And Goodyear is bringing the same tire we were on in Chicago and Texas; so we have some confidence in where we're at with that."
Actually Keselowski may be the only guy in this field who really has incentive to run hard and win. Johnson too, perhaps, because winning and misfortune for Keselowski is about the only way Johnson has even an outside shot at the title.
Keselowski offered some harsh criticism of his fellow drivers for the way they ran at Phoenix. That followed some criticism of him for racing Johnson so hard at Texas; hard, but certainly fair....which can't be said for how Jeff Gordon handled his issues with Clint Bowyer.
"When it comes down to racing for a championship, maybe there are a lot of things that we've probably done in the past that's probably not the norm," Wolfe says. "But at the end of the day we're going to do it our way.
"We might not make a lot of friends along the way, but I feel good about what we've done as a team."
Now this is NASCAR racing at it finest, Brad Keselowski on the inside, door to door and rubbing hard with Jimmie Johnson, at Texas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)