Brad Keselowski sent out a strong message to five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and the remainder of the Chase field by winning this past Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Keselowski, who is making his second appearance in the Chase this year, outran Johnson to take Round 1 in the 10-race battle for the series title. Johnson had the dominant car at Chicagoland, as he started on the pole and led 172 of 267 laps.
But Keselowski stole the show when he overtook Johnson for position during the last round of green-flag pit stops with 35 laps remaining. Keselowski then grabbed the lead for good when the cycle of stops was completed with 26 laps to go.
The No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge driver pulled away in the closing laps, beating Johnson to the finish line by 3.17 seconds for his fourth win of the season. It was also his first victory in a Chase race.
With the win, Keselowski moved atop the point standings for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. He holds a three-point lead over Johnson heading into the second Chase race Sunday at New Hampshire.
"Well, there's no better place to start than in the lead, right?" Keselowski said. "It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it's a 10- round bout. 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."
Keselowski made the Chase for the first time last year, earning a wild card by virtue of his three wins during the regular season. He finished the year fifth in points.
Johnson began the Chase in the second seed, while Keselowski started in the fourth spot. Top seed Denny Hamlin came to Chicagoland with a three-point advantage, but Hamlin finished 16th after running out of fuel on the final lap. He is now 15 points behind Keselowski.
Prior to the last round of pit stops, Keselowski ran about two seconds behind leader Johnson. Keselowski, who made his stop one lap after Johnson, quickly got up to speed after exiting pit road and then passed him for position coming out of turn two.
"For us, the last stop was just four tires and the fuel we needed to get to the end," Paul Wolfe, Keselowski's crew chief, said. "I don't know if the 48 (Johnson) just lost handle or what, but we were definitely our best on the run that counted, so I guess that's the important part."
Johnson, though, questioned Keselowski's maneuver, claiming he cut up the track too early on his reentry.
"He did cut up early," Johnson said. "It did impede my progress, and 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 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."
NASCAR reviewed Keselowski's return and determined it was acceptable.
Last year's Chase came down to a fierce battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards for the title. Stewart claimed his first win of the 2011 season in the Chase opener at Chicagoland and then went on to score four more victories during the playoffs to capture his third Sprint Cup championship, even though he ended the season in a points tie with Edwards.
Stewart became the second driver to win the first race in the Chase and then capture the series title. Kurt Busch first did it in 2004, the inaugural year of the playoff format in NASCAR's premier series. New Hampshire hosted the first Chase event that year.
Could Keselowski be the third driver to win the championship after taking the first round in the Chase?
"It's certainly a long road and a tough road to get to where we're at," he said. "I'm proud of every step that we've taken along the way. I think that we can still be better. I think that these are really good times, and I think we're just getting into them and the best is still yet to come here at Penske Racing."
Chicagoland capped off a memorable weekend for Keselowski. On Saturday, Ryan Blaney gave Brad Keselowski Racing its first race win in the Camping World Truck Series at Iowa. Blaney, the 18-year-old son of NASCAR veteran Dave Blaney, claimed his first truck victory in just his third start. He also became the youngest race winner in series history.
Keselowski's victory at Chicagoland gave team owner Roger Penske something to cheer about after watching his driver, Will Power, lose the IndyCar Series championship to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Power crashed early in the 500-mile race and ended up finishing 24th, while Hunter-Reay placed fourth and clinched the title by just three points.
Even though Power came up short of winning the IndyCar title for the third straight season, Penske is optimistic Keselowski can bring home the Sprint Cup championship to his racing organization this year.
"I think we're in good shape," Penske said. "(Keselowski) has been an amazing young guy. He's a very constructive driver from the standpoint of our people within the company. Brad revs (the team) up, and he goes around and thanks them, and that's important. These guys are big deals, big stars, but I think he has the roots from his family and the way he started to work with everybody from top to bottom. (Sunday) was a byproduct of that."
While Keselowski and Johnson are separated by three points, Stewart is just eight points behind following his sixth-place run at Chicagoland. Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer join Hamlin as those drivers trailing by 15 markers. Kahne finished third and Bowyer 10th.
The other title contenders and their points deficit include: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-17), Greg Biffle (-19), Martin Truex Jr. (-21), Kevin Harvick (-24), Matt Kenseth (-26) and Jeff Gordon (-47).
"There is not a lot of pressure now, and the first race is really an opportunity to separate the field," said Johnson, who has qualified for the Chase each season in its nine-year history. "You hope that happens if you have a good run. I saw a lot of Chase contenders going down a lap. I saw the 11 (Hamlin) rolling around out of gas at the end.
"My philosophy is just to stay in the hunt. Let's get midway through this Chase and see who's where and what to do. Brad definitely was loose coming into the race, and he should be. He should be confident on these bigger tracks. He's been very strong on them over the last four or five months."
Kansas and Talladega are those track remaining on the Chase schedule where Keselowski has previously won.