November 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Gregg Krupa

In third season, Brad Keselowski ascends to Sprint Cup throne

It certainly was not the way anyone planned it, but it worked. The state that put the world on wheels finally has a native-born Sprint Cup champion, and racing legend Roger Penske finally won NASCAR's most coveted crown.

Brad Keselowski persisted through a questionable fuel strategy Sunday, when his only remaining challenger for the championship, Jimmie Johnson, suffered a catastrophic failure and dropped out of the Ford Ecoboost 400 with 40 laps left.

Keselowski, 28, of Rochester Hills, won his first Cup championship in his third year, something that had only been done twice in the last 60 years, by the late Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

He beat a five-time champion to win his first championship quicker than two other legends of NASCAR. In doing so, Keselowski clearly now will be mentioned among the very best stock car racers alive.

"I'm not sure that this isn't just the start," said Dale Jarrett, the former champion who is now a commentator for ESPN. "We don't want to move away from the first one too quickly. But there's a lot of guys in this crew who are awfully good, and they're going to be in a great position for a long time to come."

Keselowski celebrated like he drives, aggressively.

He bounded unannounced on to the set of the Speed network, interrupting the live broadcast, pouring beer over the heads of the announcers, who had been analyzing the race.

Penske welcomes first

For Penske, 75, of Bloomfield Hills, whose career began nearly 50 years ago as a Formula One driver, and who has set the standard in Indy racing for decades, it was the first time he could lift the Sprint Cup trophy over his head in triumph.

Penske said he has had a lot of good teams in NASCAR over his 23 years as an owner, but it took a driver like Keselowski to finally break through.

"It's been a great year, and not one time did he back off any challenge, not Jimmie Johnson, not anything," Penske said.

"You know, he's a calculating driver. He's smart.

"I think his windshield is much wider than many of the drivers'. He's seeing what's going on. And I think today we've got a great athlete, a great race driver but also someone that's thinking. He's a thinking man's driver, which is very important in today's sport."

Keselowski, who started racing as a teenager on short tracks around Michigan and the upper Midwest, bounced back from bankrupting his family's racing business in 2006, when he was 22 years old and racing well in the NASCAR truck division. But when sponsors did not approach the newcomer with money, they spent what the business had accumulated, and then ran out.

"A championship takes a lot of people, and I'm just the face out front," Keselowski said. "I've had a great owner, a great crew chief in Paul Wolfe, a great crew and a great family."

But they almost did not get it done.

With about one-third of the race done, Johnson pitted and took fuel and two right tires. Keselowski stayed out, and some analysts immediately said it was an error.

Error might have cost him

They reasoned that with Johnson needing to win the race and having Keselowski finish worse than 15th for Johnson to win the championship, Keselowski should have taken fuel whenever Johnson did.

When it was all over, Keselowski agreed.

"We blew it," he said. "We blew the pit stop, and that's my fault. We should have come with around 105 laps left, and I knew it. But we didn't do it."

The mistake set up a scenario in which Johnson could have raced to the end without stopping for fuel, probably winning, while Keselowski would have had to stop once more for fuel, which likely would have put him a lap down and out of the championship.

Just after it happened, from the car, Keselowski radioed Wolfe to say, "I know the scenario. It's not good."

But when Johnson's car failed and he drove it behind the pit wall and into the garage, Wolfe radioed Keselowski with word.

"I've got the big picture, if you want to hear it," he said.

"Ten-four, thank you for telling me," Keselowski said, "We're back in the game. I got it."

After the race, Keselowski said he thought he still would have won the championship.

"I knew what was going to happen," he said. "Jimmie was going to win the race and we were going to finish 16th, and win the championship by a point."

But the wry smile on Keselowski's face told a different story, and observers did not see how he would have raced from 24th to 16th, with a yellow flag, or maybe two, stopping the race in the last 40 laps.

Before the race, Penske had warned the team that they needed "a drive down the middle of the fairway, but not a 400-yard drive," employing golf to explain their task to win a stock car championship.

They were in the rough, at one point. But when Johnson's car failed, it did not matter.

"We've reached the pinnacle, the absolute pinnacle of success," said Kay Keselowski, Brad's mom. "But I can't tell you how proud I am of my son."

Kay often says that she thinks her son accepted too much of the responsibility for the financial failure in 2006.

For his father, Bob, who won an ARCA racing title when his son was 5 years old, the championship brought tears of joy.

"I'm just so blown away," he said.

gkrupa@detnews.com

Brad Keselowski hugs team owner Roger Penske after winning the Sprint Cup title. / Terry Renna/Associated Press
Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, celebrates his ... (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)