Round One to Keselowski
If Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are the Muhammad Ali of NASCAR â the heavyweight that wins with both sheer power and poise â Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing bunch are the sportâs Sugar Ray Leonard. Not necessarily graced with the resources enjoyed by Johnson, Keselowski wins with smarts and guile â and a sweeping uppercut that comes, seemingly, from nowhere.
Therefore, it was fitting that Keselowski referred to his win in Sundayâs GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in boxerâs terms.
âIt feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just itâs a 10-round bout,â he said of the first Chase race in NASCARâs 10-week playoff. âWeek 1 is done and we won the round but we didnât by any means knock them out. Weâve got a lot of racing left to go. Weâre feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.â
Theyâll be no checking of scorecards for this round, though. Johnson started second and was in control of the race, leading a commanding 172 of the first 228 laps. However, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe managed to maneuver their Dodge to the front, using a quick pit stop â and just a little gamesmanship â to take control of the point.
Trailing Johnson by a second as the final round of pit stops began, Keselowski exited the pits just in front of his rival and made a hasty entrance onto the racing surface. Johnson claimed Keselowski âblendedâ back onto the track too soon (NASCAR rules state a driver must keep all four wheels below the white line before the backstretch). Keselowskiâs car cut in front of Johnsonâs, briefly stalling his momentum.
The move drew the ire of Johnsonâs crew chief, Chad Knaus, who asked NASCAR to review the move.
The sanctioning bodyâs response? âNo harm, no foul.â
And with that, Keselowski used clean air to hold Johnson at bay for the final 26 laps to record his fourth win of the season and claim the top spot in the Chase.
âHe did cut up early,â Johnson said. âIt did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasnât sure where things were going. But it didnât affect the outcome I donât believe.
âThe way he made quick work in (lap) traffic and stretched it out on me, Iâm not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I donât think it played an outcome in the race.â
Keselowski, in turn, feigned ignorance as to why Johnson felt wronged:
âThere is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and thatâs not a bad thing. Thatâs just one more thing to monitor during the race. But itâs certainly â I donât want to say a gentlemenâs agreement â itâs a policy of merging down the backstretch, off of Turn 2, I think it said specifically in the driverâs meeting. And I feel like thatâs what we did.â
Chase participants made up nine of the top-15 finishers. The only one that suffered a crippling blow was Jeff?Gordon, whoâs throttle stuck in lap 189. The damage resulted in a 35th-place showing. He now sits 12th in the Chase standings, 47 points out of first.
Popular pre-Chase favorite Denny Hamlin, who entered the event with the top spot, ran out of fuel on the final lap, dropping from a solid top-5 finish to 16th.
âThis was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,â said Hamlin. âItâs tough, but weâre strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.â
As the most recent drive to be anointed as the No. 1 contender, Keselowski knows itâs too early to get comfortable.
âAny time you win, itâs a bit of a mission accomplished for that particular weekend, but the Chase isnât about one particular weekend, itâs about 10, and thereâs a long row to hoe.â
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro