Brad Keselowski crosses the finish line the right way. Ryan Newman does not. (Getty Images)
And then there was ... one? Not quite, but the championship picture cleared up considerably on Sunday at Phoenix.
All day long, Brad Keselowski had a better car than Jimmie Johnson, and better strategy as well, sneaking up to grab a lap-led bonus during pit stops while Johnson was unable to do the same. And for much of the afternoon, it looked like we'd go into Homestead with the two leaders virtually tied; shades of 2011, when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were in the same spot.
And then came lap 236. Several cars had been having right-front tire issues, a side effect of increased breaking and increased tension on that tire. And at the worst possible time, Johnson's tire gave out. He hit the wall hard enough to cause damage to his vehicle, and had to go behind the wall for more than 30 laps. By then, Keselowski had avoided enough drama to end up in sixth place
Who's up? Keselowski now takes a 20-point lead into the season's final race. "Certainly if you have the choice you always want to be in the lead of the points, especially in the closing races, so I'm thankful for that," Keselowski said. "But I also know that the troubles that they had are the same troubles that we could have next week, and so you try not to take anything for granted."
Who's down? Johnson is in trouble now. "It's way, way out of our control after the problem we had today," he said. "We still have to go to Homestead and race, and anything can happen down there. But not the position you want to be in leaving Phoenix." Of note: in 2010, Johnson was 15 points behind Denny Hamlin and came back to catch him. He's only five points behind that figure now.
Who's out? Jeff Gordon effectively eliminated Clint Bowyer from any championship possibility, which is a shame because at the time, Bowyer was only a handful of points behind Johnson. Trouble with the 2 in Homestead, and Bowyer could have been right back in it. So, yes, everyone south of Johnson is mathematically eliminated.
What's next? One race left. Even if Johnson wins and leads the most laps, Keselowski still only needs to finish no worse than 15th to win the championship. Aggression or prevent defense? It'll be a fascinating test to see how he handles the challenge.