Keselowski wins Chase-opener at Chicagoland

Joliet, IL ( - Brad Keselowski clinched a spot in the second round of NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by winning Sunday's 400 -- the first round in the 10-race postseason -- at Chicagoland Speedway.

In a three-wide pass, Keselowski squeezed through Kevin Harvick and rookie Kyle Larson to take the lead for the third and final time with 16 laps to go.

Larson, who was attempting to win in the Sprint Cup Series for the first time, and Harvick had swapped the lead multiple times following a restart with 19 laps left. Keselowski ran in fourth for the restart but quickly charged towards the front. Larson was running high up the track and Harvick low when Keselowski went through them in the middle.

An accident involving Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. forced the sixth and final caution and set up a six-lap shootout to the finish. After the last restart, Keselowski pulled away from the field and then beat second-place finisher Jeff Gordon to the finish line by 1.8 seconds.

"I'm not really sure what to say," Keselowski said. "I don't really know what happened. I just know we got to the lead. There was traffic, and I was just digging and in the zone. The recorder was turned off so I don't remember what happened. I had my head down doing all I could do."

Keselowski scored his fifth victory of the season and the 15th of his Sprint Cup career. The driver of the No. 2 Ford for Team Penske earned the first seed following his victory in last weekend's regular-season-finale at Richmond. Keselowski led a total of 62 laps after starting 25th here at Chicagoland. Friday's qualifying session was rained out and the starting lineup was therefore decided by practice speeds.

In 2012, Keselowski won the first race in the Chase at Chicagoland and went on to capture the Sprint Cup championship. He did not qualify for the playoffs in 2013, finishing 14th in points.

This year, NASCAR revised the playoff format for its premier series, expanding the field of drivers from 12 to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to decide the championship. The number of drivers in contention for the title will decrease every three Chase races.

The opening round, known as the "Challenger Round," includes the first three races -- Chicagoland, New Hampshire (Sept. 21) and Dover (Sept. 28).

After Dover, the Chase field will be trimmed to 12 for the next round, referred to as the "Contender Round." If a driver in the field wins at either Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover, that person will automatically advance to the next round, which includes the races at Kansas (Oct. 5), Charlotte (Oct. 11) and Talladega (Oct. 19). The remaining available positions 1-12 that have not been filled based upon wins will be determined by points. Each driver will then have his points reset to 3,000.

"The next two weeks are going to be a lot of fun, knowing that we don't have to worry too much," Keselowski said.

Three of Keselowski's wins this year have occurred on 1.5-mile racetracks (Las Vegas, Kentucky and Chicagoland). He also won the July event at New Hampshire. Five of the races in the Chase are contested on mile and a halfs, including the season-finale at Homestead (Nov. 16).

Gordon's runner-up finish allowed him to retain the second spot in the Chase standings, as he trails Keselowski by seven points.

"That's a great way to get started, especially with restarts like that to come out second," Gordon said.

Larson finished third after starting from the rear of the field in a backup car. He wrecked his primary vehicle in Saturday's practice.

"Man, I was so close," Larson said. "I didn't need that caution there. I was just cruising out front, and then we got that yellow (flag), and I had to battle Harvick really hard then. That allowed Brad to get by both of us. It really ended our shot at a win there. We had one more shot there at the last restart but just didn't have enough for Brad."

Joey Logano, who is Keselowski's teammate at Penske and a Chase member, placed fourth after he started 28th.

"What a hard fought day for this (No. 22) team," Logano said. "We were struggling all weekend and weren't very fast, but we fought hard and got a nice top-five out of it. We will take that and keep being consistent and get to the next round."

Harvick, also in the Chase, took the fifth spot. He led the most laps with 79.

"The No. 42 (Larson) was better than us," Harvick said. "He passed us the run before and was able to get track position and restart on the bottom. On the restarts, for whatever reason, I was tight those last several restarts up on exit, so I had to kind of go into defensive mode."

The remainder of drivers in the Chase field and their finishing positions include: Denny Hamlin (6th), Kyle Busch (7th), Kurt Busch (8th), Matt Kenseth (10th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th), Jimmie Johnson (12th), Kasey Kahne (13th), Ryan Newman (15th), Carl Edwards (20th), A.J. Allmendinger (22nd), Greg Biffle (23rd), and Aric Almirola (41st).

Almirola, making his first appearance in the Chase for Richard Petty Motorsports, was running in sixth on lap 231 when he suffered engine failure and had to retire from the race.

"I've never been so heart-broken," a disappointed Almirola said. "We were running in sixth with just over 30 laps to go in the first round of the Chase, and I've been saying it all week, the only thing we can't do is have a big mistake. And we did."

Logano trails Keselowski by 10 points, while Harvick is 12 points behind the leader. Earnhardt is fifth in the standings (-17), followed by Hamlin (-18), Kyle Busch (-18), Johnson (-18), Kurt Busch (-20), Kenseth (-25), Kahne (-25), Edwards (-29), Newman (-30), Allmendinger (-34), Biffle (-38) and Almirola (-52).