In 2012, there wasn’t much intrigue as to who would win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Brad Keselowski walked away as the easy winner, besting runner-up Clint Bowyer by 39 points following his 15th place finish in the season-ending race at Homestead.
It was the first Sprint Cup victory for both Keselowski and for team owner Roger Penske, who’s been legendary in open-wheel racing for many years but had largely failed on the NASCAR circuit since first debuting as an owner in 1972.
This year, however, intrigue is the word as two drivers are tied atop the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are in a dead heat atop the standings, with four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon trailing by 27 points and Kevin Harvick in fourth place just 28 points back.
Kenseth won the first two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that began in September, winning at Chicagoland Speedway and the following week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But Johnson roared close to the top of the standings by virtue of his win at the AAA 400 in Dover on Sept. 29, and the two have remained close since.
Gordon threw his hat in the ring when he won last week at the Martinsville Speedway. It was his first win of the season, catapulting him into the chase. Gordon hasn’t captured the Sprint Cup since 2001.
The final three races don’t favor Gordon—he’s won one race in 25 starts at Texas, twice in 29 starts at Phoenix and just once in 14 starts at Homestead.
By comparison, both Johnson and Harvick have won twice at Texas, Johnson has four wins at Phoenix and has yet to win at Homestead. Harvick has captured one win at both Phoenix and Homestead.
No question the Sprint Cup at this point won’t be decided until Homestead on Nov. 17, and for Johnson and Kenseth, it’s likely going to come down to who makes fewer mistakes in the last three races.
It all starts in Texas, where the third-to-last race of the year has produced some thrilling finishes in recent history.
Johnson and Kenseth put on a thrilling show in the race’s final laps back in 2007 with Johnson coming from behind to win. In 2010, Gordon and Jeff Burton got into a fight after Burton’s car clipped Gordon.
And just last year, Johnson and Keselowski battled it out over the final laps, and while Johnson came away with the victory, Keselowski served notice that he wasn’t about to back down from the five-time champion.
It’s likely that Texas will again produce fireworks on Sunday as the top drivers try to do anything they can to gain an advantage.
It’s also interesting to note that Gordon could sneak away with the Cup after having finished 13th in points prior to the Chase. Gordon became the 12th and final entrant for the Chase only after NASCAR handed down record penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing, leaving Martin Truex Jr. out in the cold.
Gordon hadn’t won a race prior to last week this season, so his ascension to the top of the standing would put a cap on what no doubt has been a bizarre season for NASCAR.
But he’ll have to get some help. Johnson and Kenseth would have to fall on their swords in order for Gordon to win outright. Considering their track records, that’s not likely to happen.
Homestead will decide the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and 2013 will go down as a bizarre year in the history of the sport.