If Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are the Muhammad Ali of NASCAR — the heavyweight that wins with both sheer power and poise — Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing bunch are the sport’s Sugar Ray Leonard. Not necessarily graced with the resources enjoyed by Johnson, Keselowski wins with smarts and guile — and a sweeping uppercut that comes, seemingly, from nowhere.
Therefore, it was fitting that Keselowski referred to his win in Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in boxer’s terms.
“It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it’s a 10-round bout,” he said of the first Chase race in NASCAR’s 10-week playoff. “Week 1 is done and we won the round but we didn’t by any means knock them out. We’ve got a lot of racing left to go. We’re feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.”
They’ll 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 — and just a little gamesmanship — 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 “blended” back onto the track too soon (NASCAR rules state a driver must keep all four wheels below the white line before the backstretch). Keselowski’s car cut in front of Johnson’s, briefly stalling his momentum.
The move drew the ire of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, who asked NASCAR to review the move.
The sanctioning body’s response? “No harm, no foul.”
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.
“He did cut up early,” Johnson said. “It did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasn’t sure where things were going. But it didn’t affect the outcome I don’t believe.
“The way he made quick work in (lap) traffic and stretched it out on me, I’m not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I don’t think it played an outcome in the race.”
Keselowski, in turn, feigned ignorance as to why Johnson felt wronged:
“There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. But it’s certainly — I don’t want to say a gentlemen’s agreement — it’s a policy of merging down the backstretch, off of Turn 2, I think it said specifically in the driver’s meeting. And I feel like that’s what we did.”
Chase participants made up nine of the top-15 finishers. The only one that suffered a crippling blow was Jeff?Gordon, who’s 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.
“This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,” said Hamlin. “It’s tough, but we’re strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.”
As the most recent drive to be anointed as the No. 1 contender, Keselowski knows it’s too early to get comfortable.
“Any time you win, it’s a bit of a mission accomplished for that particular weekend, but the Chase isn’t about one particular weekend, it’s about 10, and there’s a long row to hoe.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro