By Jeff Wolfe
Brad Keselowski drives car No. 2. But maybe it was the fear of being No. 2 that propelled Keselowski to victory in the first race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, the sport’s version of the playoffs.
Keselowski had three wins during the 26-race regular season, but the team feared it swouldn’t be good enough to compete against the likes of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in these final ten races. So, not content with the possibility of being No. 2 behind Johnson’s No. 48, the team brought a new car to Chicagoland Sunday in front of 65,000 fans.
“We knew we needed a little speed here,” said Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe. “Through the summer months we had some great races and great finishes, but we knew we needed a little more to run with the 48. Now, we were able to see the results today.”
While Keselowski was in the top-3 most of the day, he hadn’t been able to put much pressure on Johnson for most of the race. Johnson led 172 of the 267 laps and as it became time for the final green flag pit stops to begin, Johnson had just over a one-second lead on Keselowski.
While Johnson pitted first with 38 laps remaining, Keselowski came in a lap later. When he exited pit road, he came out even with Johnson and took the lead for good on lap 242 in a race that had four cautions for 23 laps and went green for the final 73 laps.
“I feel like as the closing laps came down there, the second part of the race, it looked like it was going to be between us and the 48,” Wolfe said. “Obviously clean air is so important, and to be able to come down pit road and have a great stop like we did and be able to just clear and get back on the racetrack, I felt like that was the key.”
Johnson expressed some concern over the radio that Keselowski had come up on the racing surface too soon after the final pit stop, resulting in crew chief Chad Knaus asking NASCAR to take a look at it. NASCAR reviewed the film and determined that Keselowski’s re-entry was fine.
“Yeah, I think you look at it, there is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that’s not a bad thing,” Keselowski said. “That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. 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.”
And when reviewing the results of the race, Johnson acknowledged that Keselowski was simply faster in those final laps.
“The last maybe three runs he was definitely a factor,” said Johnson. “The last one he was just better. “
Keselowski, who has eight career Sprint Cup victories, said he wasn’t holding anything back in case Johnson closed in the final laps.
“We were both showing our hand,” he said. “I don’t know if the 48 slowed down or we sped up, but for some reason we just took off. It seemed like this race was about 20 laps longer than I wanted to be. It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout. It feels good to win it and it’s great, but there are a lot of rounds left.”
And while, of course, everyone wants to win, taking the first race of the Chase is no guarantee of a championship. Only Kurt Busch in 2004, the first year of the Chase, and Tony Stewart last year have won the first race and gone on to win the title. Keselowski had expressed his unhappiness earlier this year, saying Johnson, one of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the Chase, had an unfair advantage, comparing the rest of the field to driving trucks compared to Johnson’s car.
“Rusty (Wallace, the retired and long-time driver of the No. 2) would say, I’m driving a hot rod right now,” Keselowski said. “I’m driving a hot rod now instead of truck.”
Following Keselowski and Johnson in the top-10 were Kasey Kahne in third, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr. and Clint Bowyer.
While Kahne was in the top five most of the day, he could never mount a serious challenge for the lead as he never led a lap.
“It was good all day, but not as good as the 48, or good as Brad at the end,” Kahne said of his car. “I felt good about it, but we couldn’t get it any better.”
The day for Keselowski’s owner Roger Penske couldn’t get any better. Penske is the lone team that uses a Dodge and the manufacturer announced earlier this year that it was pulling out of NASCAR after Penske announced it was moving to Ford for the 2013 season.
But what could be an awkward situation was a winning one Sunday.
“I think the one thing we both have done, we’ve clasped our hands and said we’re going to go for it and do our very best, because they’ve been a great partner and I think the cooperation technically that they’ve had with our chassis guys, our engine people and aerodynamic people has been terrific,” Penske said. “We might be backing out of the garage, but I certainly want to leave them with the best results we can.”
And no one could argue with those results Sunday.
The Sprint Cup Series travels to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Sylvania 300, race No. 2 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Coverage begins Sunday afternoon at 1:00pm EDT with the actual race beginning shortly after 2:00pm.
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