Keselowski aside, NASCAR ready to move past 2012
Hours before the race, AJ Allmendinger was suspended for failing a random drug test. Nothing diverts attention like a scandal, and Allmendinger's woes and his job with straight-laced Penske Racing dominated the news for the next month.
When Penske finally cut him loose, the free agency watch began. Matt Kenseth had announced in June he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing, and although it was a poorly kept secret he was taking Joey Logano's ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, it wasn't officially confirmed until the end of the summer.
So the industry watched and waited to see if Logano would get Allmendinger's seat over Sam Hornish Jr., a Penske loyalist who has done anything at The Captain's beck and call. When Logano did get the job, and it was revealed the hiring was at Keselowski's urging, it should have been a clear sign that something special had developed between team owner and driver.
Otherwise, how would Keselowski have such pull?
"He's passionate about the sport, and he wants me to be involved, as he has the rest of the team, and I think that we've stepped it up," Penske said. "I'd have to say that Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he's pushed the team in a positive direction, and he's delivering."
Keselowski delivered as soon as the Chase opened, stealing a win from Johnson at Chicagoland and hanging with the five-time champion and Denny Hamlin round-for-round all the way to Homestead. The title fights were at Texas, where Keselowski had to line up for three late restarts, winning the first two but losing to Johnson on the last one to go down seven points headed into Phoenix.
It was one of Johnson's best tracks and a place where Keselowski was unproven. But he was better than Johnson for two-thirds of the race, and then a blown tire sent Johnson into the wall. It put Keselowski in great shape headed into the finale, but not before Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer to trigger a garage-area melee and prove the season-long theme that the sideshows tend to overshadow the actual racing.
Gordon was fined $100,000 and could have been suspended for last week's finale. Even after holding off Bowyer to win Sunday's race, he was dealing with the aftermath of Phoenix.
"It's like our whole season wrapped up in one week," he said. "You can try all you want to move past the moment, but man, it just ate me up inside all week. I just kept going back and forth from being disappointed, being angry, feeling that I had a right. I didn't have a right."
He looked around at his race team, grateful they stood behind him all season and after the Bowyer incident, and grateful they'll be with him next year.
"I think it started in our team meeting before the race, I apologized to those guys for some of the things that transpired that they had to get involved with that wasn't their doing last week, and I put them in that position, and I apologized to them and I thanked them at the same time for having my back," Gordon said. "We've had to have one another's backs because we've all made mistakes this year. And so to be able to celebrate with them in victory lane was very special, very meaningful, and gives a tremendous amount of momentum to go into 2013 with the new race car."
It's all about next season.
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