JOLIET, Ill. – For over two months now, Brad Keselowski has been racing as well as anybody on the Sprint Cup circuit.
After his impressive victory in the opener of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it's becoming harder to overlook the confident 28-year-old.
"I feel like it's my goal to be a Sprint Cup champion, to be a winner," Keselowski said. "Racing is one of the few things I've ever done in my life that has been able to take me to another level mentally and physically, and it demands that out of you to be successful."
Keselowski finished comfortably ahead of Jimmie Johnson on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, winning a Chase race for the first time in his career. He also took over the lead in the points standings for the first time.
Afterward, he was quick to remind reporters there are still nine races to go, but this has been quite a run for Keselowski. Beginning with a victory in Kentucky on June 30, he's finished in the top 10 in 10 of 11 races.
"If I go down, I'm going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time," he said. "I'm not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out."
Keselowski and his No. 2 Dodge got ahead of Johnson after a crucial pit cycle with about 35 laps remaining and led the final 26 laps in the 400-mile race. Johnson finished 3.171 seconds behind, and he said he thought Keselowski crossed a restraining line too early when exiting after that pit stop near the end.
The incident was reviewed and there was no infraction called, and Johnson never made much of a run at catching Keselowski during the final laps.
"He did cut up early. It did impede my progress," Johnson said. "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."
It was Keselowski's fourth victory of the season. The Michigan driver leads Johnson by three points — and gave Penske Racing a reason to feel good after Will Power's failed bid for the IndyCar championship Saturday night in California.
"It's a great day for us," owner Roger Penske said. "It cools me down a little bit after being hot last night."
All 12 of the Chase drivers finished in the top 18, with the exception of Jeff Gordon, who went into the wall with about 80 laps remaining. Gordon barely qualified for the Chase to begin with, and his championship hopes are in serious jeopardy after his 35th-place showing Sunday.
Kyle Busch finished fourth, the best performance of any driver not in the Chase. Among other Chase qualifiers, defending champion Tony Stewart was sixth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was eighth, Martin Truex Jr. was ninth and Clint Bowyer was 10th. Kevin Harvick finished 12th, one spot ahead of Greg Biffle.
Denny Hamlin, the top seed coming in, fell all the way to 16th in the race while low on fuel at the end, and Matt Kenseth finished 18th.
Stewart is third in the standings, followed by a three-way tie among Hamlin, Kahne and Bowyer. Earnhardt is seventh, followed by Biffle, Truex, Harvick, Kenseth and Gordon — who is 47 points behind the leader.
There were only four cautions for 23 laps, the last coming when Gordon needed to return to the garage with damage to the right side of his car. He said his throttle became stuck, causing the crash.
"Disappointing," said Gordon, who started the race in 19th position. "We had to fight hard to come from 19th up there in the top five, and the car was feeling good."
Keselowski began the year poorly with a late accident at Daytona. Earlier in that race, he caused a bit of a stir when he posted on Twitter during a red-flag stoppage. Afterward, NASCAR said it was OK for Keselowski to keep his cellphone in his car during events, and that all drivers were encouraged to use social media.
Lately, Keselowski's driving has been drawing the attention. He's showing the consistency and maturity needed to make a run at the title.
"He went through a lot of rigmarole, some maybe he was due, some he wasn't," Penske said. "But I think he's managed to develop a lot of rapport with the drivers. I think they trust him wheel to wheel. He's not a reckless guy at all, and on and off the track I think he's got high integrity."