Jimmie Johnson's pre-race insistence that Brad Keselowski was no shoo-in to win the NASCAR championship at Homestead was written off by most as a veteran driver playing mind games.
But guess what? Johnson, it turns out, truly believed what he was saying: That he, not Keselowski, would be the 2012 champion despite a 20-point deficit heading into the final race. Keselowski had to finish 15th or better to clinch the title.
"Going into Homestead, I really felt like we were going to win the championship – and we didn't," Johnson said last week in Las Vegas. "... I mean, 15th is not easy to pull off down there – and he just finished on that mark. I've been in those shoes and I know what it's like, and it's tough to get it done."
In fact, Johnson's hunch was correct. Keselowski managed a 15th-place finish, but only after rallying from a nerve-wracking situation due to misplayed fuel strategy. Johnson would have been very close to Keselowski in the final point standings had he not been forced to retire from the race with mechanical problems.
Johnson felt his No. 48 team "had those guys on the ropes" and said no one could know how the race would have unfolded had he been able to maintain the pressure on Keselowski until the checkered flag.
"I was just disappointed we didn't take advantage of our opening – although it would have been close and maybe he would have had us by one (point)," Johnson said. "You don't really know how it all shakes out when it's really on the line. But I wish we would have lost by one instead of being in third."
That Johnson failed to win the championship surprised even the driver, since he seemed to be on a march toward Title No. 6 until he crashed at Phoenix and had the problem at Homestead.
Johnson ended the season with his worst back-to-back finishes since July 2007.
"Through that five-year (championship) stretch, not only did we have fast cars and got the job done, but we had some breaks go our way and really help," he said. "And it takes all factors to really pull it together. I did feel like things were going our way, especially with the poles and wins we had at Martinsville and Texas – and then things just came to an abrupt halt for us."
In the end, the result reminded him of 2004. That year, Johnson surged toward what would have been his first title and seemed destined to win it in the aftermath of the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash. But Kurt Busch won instead.
"At the end of the day, as a competitor you're probably going to believe it until you're eliminated," he said, comparing that season and this one. "And we had a chance."