AVONDALE, Ariz. — When the fighting stopped, the oil had dried and the last of the wrecked cars had been towed away, Brad Keselowski found himself on the brink of a first Sprint Cup title for himself and team owner Roger Penske.
Only he wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
He entered Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway trailing five-time champion Jimmie Johnson by seven points and had the better car all day. And moments after Keselowski raced his way into the lead, a blown tire caused Johnson to crash and take his battered car to the garage for repairs.
It helped Keselowski, who finished sixth, to a 20-point lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he’ll clinch the title with a finish of 15th or better.
“I wanted to take the points lead by winning a race and not relying on a failure,” Keselowski said.
Johnson’s sudden misfortune was a dramatic and stunning turn in the most chaotic race of the year.
It proved to be just the warm-up act in a race that could go down as the one many fans will call the best of the season.
Probably for all the wrong reasons.
And that’s what had Keselowski so upset.
“I’m more just disappointed in the quality of racing that we saw,” he said. “I thought it was absolutely ridiculous, and I was ashamed to be a part of it.”
Kevin Harvick snapped a 44-race losing streak by beating Kyle Busch on a pair of late restarts, the ironic winner on the same weekend news leaked he’s reportedly signed a deal to leave Richard Childress Racing to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
“We have 2012, we have 2013, and regardless of what happens on a business side of things, Richard Childress and myself will always be friends, good or bad, and may agree to disagree,” Harvick said, “but we still have a lot of racing left to do and we owe it to our sponsors and our company to go out and do exactly what we did today and be men and do the best we can for everybody.”
Harvick and Busch crossed the finish line ahead of a melee of crashing cars, a chain reaction caused in part because NASCAR failed to throw a caution when Danica Patrick was spun on the restart. Then others slid in oil, into Patrick’s wrecked car, bounced all over the track, and even Keselowski was hit.
“There was a lot of stuff on the race track, there was oil all over it. Ray Charles could see that,” second-place finisher Denny Hamlin said.
Busch, who finished third, also saw the oil all over the track.
“Not sure if (NASCAR) had time to react to all that, but granted, you would expect that they would see all of that and see the oil slick,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t small by any means. It was three feet wide.”
But the carnage was simply the final exclamation point in a sequence triggered by four-time champion Jeff Gordon. He intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer, and that led to a full brawl in the garage and a red-flag of nearly 15 minutes for clean up on the track.
Keselowski was tweeting during the delay from inside his car — a practice he first did during a jet fuel fire in the season-opening Daytona 500 — and NASCAR had officially reached three-ring circus status.
“The sport was made on fights. We should have more fights. I like fights,” Harvick said after the race. “They’re not always fun to be in, sometimes you’re on the wrong end, but fights are what made NASCAR what it is.”
This one began as the field closed in on what should have been the final lap and Gordon slowed his car to wait for Bowyer so he could intentionally wreck him as retaliation for several weeks of on-track contact between the two.
After Gordon climbed from his car in the garage, he appeared to be jumped from behind by one of Bowyer’s crew members. It led to a full brawl between the crews, with Bowyer sprinting from his car to join the fracas. Bowyer was held back by NASCAR officials from entering Gordon’s hauler.
“It’s pretty embarrassing,” Bowyer said. “For a four-time champion, and what I consider one of the best this sport’s ever seen to act like this is pretty ridiculous.”
Both drivers and their crew chiefs were called to the NASCAR hauler for a meeting with series officials, and police officers stood outside on guard.
Gordon said he’s had problems with Bowyer all season and had reached his limit.
“Things just got escalated over the year, and I’d just had it,” he said. “Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me, and he got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I’ve had it, fed up with it and I got him back.”
He said he didn’t know what penalties might be coming from NASCAR.
“They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do, and I guess I had to do what,” he said.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the situation would be looked at further this week.
“That was surely a shame,” he said. “We’ll continue to try to get everybody back calm down and back to a working situation.”
But Keselowski was livid, questioning the double-standard a week after he was criticized for racing hard on the final restarts against Johnson last week at Texas.
He could have wrecked Johnson for the victory, and three years ago he might have done just that. But Keselowski was only aggressive, and even after losing the race was condemned by some of his fellow competitors.
Three-time champion Tony Stewart said Keselowski had “a death wish” and Kyle Busch felt some drivers wouldn’t give Keselowski a break on the track because he raced Johnson too hard on the last restart.
“It’s the double standard that I spent a whole week being bashed by a half-dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I’m out of control and have a death wish,” he said. “These guys just tried to kill each other … they should be ashamed. It’s embarrassing.”
He’ll move on now to Homestead, where a conservative day should be enough to wrap up the title.
But he saw what happened to Johnson, at one of Johnson’s best tracks, and won’t take anything for granted.
“Obviously there are no guarantees,” he said. “We could go to Homestead and have the same problem and Jimmie, you know, takes the point lead back over.”
Johnson, who has been thinking lately about a NASCAR-record eight championships, sounded resigned after his 32nd-place finish to going for broke at Homestead.
“It’s way, way out of our control. That’s racing, and we’ll go to Homestead and do all we can down there and see how things pan out,” he said. “Anything can happen in racing. I’m very proud of the year, I’m very proud of the effort. I hate to see it potentially end this way, but again, that’s racing. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve won a few championships and I’ve lost a lot.
“Losing isn’t any fun, but we’ll be back next weekend and next year hungrier than ever and do the best we can.”