For the first time in his Sprint Cup Series career that has spanned 116 races, Brad Keselowski is atop the point standings. It's also the first time a driver from Penske Racing is leading in points since Ryan Newman won the 2008 Daytona 500.
Keselowski holds a three-point advantage over five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson after winning the first round in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship this past Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. The winner of the first Chase race has gone on to become champion just twice. Kurt Busch first did it in 2004, the inaugural year of the playoff format in NASCAR's premier series, while Tony Stewart accomplished the feat last year.
"The points lead is nice," Keselowski said. "I refuse to let it sink in, because there is so much work left to be done. We need to keep our eyes looking forward. I'm going to focus on the next nine races, and I know everyone on the team is going to do the same. It would be a disservice to Sunday's win if we allow our focus to get away from tomorrow's workload."
Keselowski had a lot of momentum heading into the Chase, scoring more points than any other competitor during the final 10 races of the regular season. He claimed his fourth win of the season at Chicagoland, which placed him in a tie with Denny Hamlin for most victories in the series this season.
Round two in the Chase takes place on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H.
Keselowski has yet to win at New Hampshire but has posted three top-10 finishes in his six races Sprint Cup races there. His best finish at this flat 1.058-mile racetrack is second, which came one year ago. He placed fifth there in July.
"Loudon has been an underrated track for us over the last couple of years," he said. "I think we can run well there again and keep the points lead."
Tony Stewart won last year's Chase race at New Hampshire. Stewart took the lead with just two laps to go when then-leader Clint Bowyer ran out of fuel. His win there came six days after he took the checkered flag at Chicagoland. He recorded three more victories during the Chase to capture his third series title.
With last seasons' back-to-back victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, Stewart joined Greg Biffle as those drivers who won the first two races in the Chase. Biffle won at New Hampshire and Dover International Speedway in 2008 but finished the season third in points.
Stewart is eight points behind Keselowski following his sixth-place run at Chicagoland. When Stewart came to New Hampshire at this time last year, he was seven points out of the lead.
"It's nice to get off to a decent start when you're not feeling like you have to climb out of a hole after the first week," Stewart said.
New Hampshire is one of Stewart's best tracks. He has posted three wins, 14- top-five finishes and 16 top-10s in 27 races there.
"I've always liked Loudon," he said. "I don't know if there's a real secret that we have there. It's just something about the way I drive the car. It's a fun track, and it's a track that I always look forward to. I'm not going to say that it's my favorite track, but it's definitely in my top-three."
Heading to New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Bowyer are each 15 points out of the lead. Kahne won at this track two months ago.
The other title contenders and their points deficit include: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-17), Biffle (-19), Martin Truex Jr. (-21), Kevin Harvick (-24), Matt Kenseth (-26) and Jeff Gordon (-47).
Gordon had the worst finish among the Chase drivers at Chicagoland with a 35- place result. The four-time series champion experienced a throttle malfunction and made contact with the wall late in the race.
"It was a disappointing result (in Chicago), but we had a fast race car," Gordon said. "We'll put that event behind us and focus on trying to win Loudon this weekend. There is still a long way to go."
When the series ran at New Hampshire during the regular season, Gordon was 191 points out of the lead. But Gordon recorded six top-10 finishes in the next eight races, including a pair of second-place runs at Atlanta and Richmond.
Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Sylvania 300.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, September 23. Race: Sylvania 300. Site: New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Track: 1.058-mile oval. Start time: 2 p.m.(ET). Laps: 300. Miles: 317.4. 2011 Winner: Tony Stewart. Television: ESPN. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.