Chasing the Sprint Cup title, 'gold standard'

jutter@charlotteobserver.comNovember 17, 2012 

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(L-R) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski talk while their crews made adjustments to their cars during a break in practice on Thursday, October 11, 2012 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

— Two of NASCAR’s best meet on Sunday to decide the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship.

And not just behind the wheel.

Brad Keselowski enters Sunday’s Ford 400 season finale with a 20-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski starts third, Johnson 10th and Joey Logano will start from the pole.

Keselowski and Johnson have won five races this season and have shown to be among the most consistent all season long. A championship would be a first for Keselowski and Johnson’s sixth.

There is a similar disparity when it comes to the owners as well.

Both Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske have spent numerous years competing in NASCAR but Hendrick has been far more successful in Cup championships.

“When you’re racing – I call it the gold standard, the best in the business,” Penske said. “Rick Hendrick is a great friend of mine, I have a lot of respect for him both on the business side and certainly on the racing side, and Johnson is a cool cat.

“He knows how to get it done. He’s gotten it done five times. So, just being in the league with them – it’s the final day, you’re teeing up the last 18 and we’re in the same foursome.

“That’s a pretty good day.”

Penske has few peers in open-wheel racing, having won the Indianapolis 500 15 times and 12 IndyCar titles. Yet despite more than 1,500 starts in the Cup series and 76 wins, Penske has never won the sport’s biggest prize.

He came closest in 1993, finishing second in the series standings with driver Rusty Wallace. Penske won his first NASCAR title in 2010, when Keselowski won the Nationwide Series championship in his first season with the Penske organization.

Hendrick, on the other hand, has won 10 Cup titles, including Johnson’s five. He’s also won championships with drivers Jeff Gordon (four) and Terry Labonte (one).

Earlier this season Hendrick Motorsports earned its 200th win in the Cup series – a milestone only matched by Petty Motorsports.

A victory by Keselowski would help elevate his and his owner’s stature in NASCAR but both still have a long journey to match Johnson and Hendrick.

“I felt very confident that if Roger and I worked together that it was just a matter of time before we’d be successful – if we truly worked together, not just hire me, throw me in the seat and let’s go,” Keselowski said.

“But if we truly worked together with a common goal of improvement. And I feel like that’s how we’ve been able to be successful.”

How much will be determined on Sunday.

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