The celebration inside the motor coach spilled into the small hours of Monday morning, the Miller Lite flowing nearly as fast as the tweets from a most unlikely, iPhone-wielding champion. Here was a great underdog story: A 28-year-old from a working-class Michigan family—who only five years ago routinely had his credit card rejected when he tried to check into hotels—had just defeated the most dominating driver of this era. Yes, Brad Keselowski taking down Jimmie Johnson at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday to win the 2012 Sprint Cup title was the culmination of a season that was the racing equivalent of Buster Douglas sending Mike Tyson sprawling to the canvas.
"I've spent my entire life preparing for this moment," Keselowski said three days before the season finale. "I was close to never making it as a driver. But now that I'm here, I absolutely will not back down to Jimmie."
Holding a 20-point lead over Johnson heading into Homestead, Keselowski needed only to finish 15th or better to secure his first Cup title. He played it safe for the entire 400 miles, never putting his number 2 Miller Lite Dodge in anything near a precarious position. Johnson appeared to have a shot to steal the title late in the race because he was on a different fuel strategy that could allow him to make one less pit stop than Keselowski—but then the rear gear of Johnson's Chevy broke. He finished 36th, while Keselowski light-footed it to 15th place and the championship.
Keselowski was virtually born to race. His father, Bob, ran a one-car racing operation in Lake Orion, Mich. But in 2006, as Brad was seeking a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series, his family's team suspended operations. Brad kept begging teams for a chance, and in 2008 JR Motorsports took him on. He finished his first full Nationwide year with nearly $2 million in earnings and helped pay off the team's debts. "Brad saved us," says his father.
Now in his third full Cup season, Keselowski famously tweeted from his cockpit during a red-flag delay in last February's Daytona 500 (he picked up more than 100,000 followers that night), then won three regular-season races while exhibiting a brash style and a cool confidence. Of the 12 drivers going into the Chase, he had the third-worst career average finish on the 10 playoff tracks (17.4); Johnson had the best (10.1). Yet Keselowski consistently ran faster than Mr. Five-Time, topping his own average at every track. What's more, he did it on a team half the size of Hendrick Motorsports.
"This is just the beginning," Keselowski said. "I'm going to be around for a long time." Indeed, on Sunday night, as Keselowski drank deep of the moment (and his sponsor's product) in Victory Lane, giving shout-outs to his crew and fans, it felt like the start of something rather than just the end of another season.