Brad Keslowski made the best possible start to his Chase campaign by beating Jimmie Johnson to victory at Chicago with an aggressive pass exiting the pits.
This was about as close as it gets to a perfect weekend for the 28 year-old from Michigan: after Ryan Blaney scored the maiden win for Keselowski’s Truck team atIowa on Friday night, Keselowski followed it up with his eighth career win, which propels him into the championship lead for the first time in his Cup career.
As the sole representative of both Penske Racing and Dodge in the Chase, a huge amount of pressure rests on the Keselowski’s shoulders, but the 2010 Nationwide champion is unmoved.
“It feels like round one of a heavyweight title bout, just it’s a 10-round bout,” Keselowski said. “Week one 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. We’re feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.”
Johnson qualified on pole and led 172 laps, so the five-time champion had much to be content with, despite missing out on his fourth win of the year.
“Great way to start the Chase for us,” said Johnson. “It’s 10 long races, and a lot can happen. To come out of here second is a great day. Of course we wanted to end up in Victory Lane; that’s a given, but we’ll take this second and go onto the next one. I’m really happy with where this team is right now.”
It may not be possible to win the Chase in week 1, but Jeff Gordon is quickly discovering that it can quite easily be lost after a miserable opening weekend to the Chase which leaves him with a lot of catching up to do if his dream of winning a fifth title is to become a reality.
Gordon made the Chase by the skin of his teeth at Richmondand subsequently carried out his promise to bring back the moustache he wore in the early 90s. However his facial growth did nothing to change the rotten luck that has dogged the #24 team so far this year; while running fourth, the throttle on Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet stuck open, sending him crashing into a premature retirement.
Kasey Kahne may have a rather under-the-radar run in to the Chase, but proved that he is not to be written off lightly with a strong third place finish, while the final member of the Hendrick stable – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – had to race his way up from the back after a post-qualifying engine change. After an early race charge and a high-speed brush with Trevor Bayne, Earnhardt made the finish in a creditable 8th.
“We really couldn’t overcome the track position,” said Dale Jr. “Eighth is all right, but I know Brad is going to run well and Jimmie is obviously going to be tough. You can’t run eighth every week and win the championship.”
Kyle Busch was left to wonder ‘what if’ after his failure to make the Chase at Richmond ensured his strong fourth pace showing at Chicago would count for nothing, a fact underlined by his TV snub.
Busch posted on Twitter: “Since TV didn’t interview me I’ll come on here to say thanks to my sponsors and my team for an awesome car and solid stops all day!”
With the pressure and media spotlight off the Joe Gibbs Racing #18 team, expect Busch to be a consistent thorn in the side of the Chasers in the final 9 weeks of the season.
His JGR team-mate Denny Hamlin and arrived at Chicago in a rich vein of form having won two of the previous three races, so a 16th place finish – having run out of fuel on the final lap – was not at all what he had in mind. Even so, Hamlin is optimistic that he can recover the ground lost at New Hampshire next weekend, a track he almost won at earlier this year.
“We’re only 15 back or something like that – we can make that up easily,” Hamlin said. “We’re fast enough to do that. The bad thing is that I felt like we could have run to third right there, just we were having to run so slow to keep from running out of fuel and we still ran out.
“You can’t have self-induced problems and this isn’t luck or anything like that. This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again. It’s tough, but we’re strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.”
After his crushing victory at Chicagolast year propelled him to the championship, Tony Stewart was expected once again to contend for victory. However, severe vibrations meant progress from 29th on the grid was always going to be tough, so following team-mate Ryan Newman home in sixth place was about as good as it was ever going to get.
“If we can be a little bit off and end up with a top-10, then we are in good shape,” the defending champion said ominously.
Michael Waltrip Racing was elated get both full-time cars into the Chase for the first time in their short history, and both Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer made it into the top-10. However each felt that improvement is needed if MWR are to be serious contenders for Chase glory.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted to start the Chase,” said Truex. “At the start of the race the car was just really tight – just ploughing. I was pretty worried. At the beginning if you would have told me we were going to get a top-10, I would have told you that you were crazy.”
“It just wasn’t a good day,” echoed Bowyer, who won the final round of the regular season at Richmond. “I don’t know whether it was strategy or pit stops or what, but it seemed like we lost spots on pit road all day and it just cost us. You’re not going to win a championship with decent days – you have to have good days.”
It was a disappointing start too for Ford and the Roush-Fenway pairing of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. After Ricky Stenhouse‘s triumph in the Nationwide race driving the #6 Mustang, hopes were doubly high when the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford of Aric Almirola qualified alongside Johnson on the front row, Kenseth third and Carl Edwards fifth. But from there, things turned sour as Almirola – at the time still running in the top 5 – was given a penalty for a loose tyre in the pits. Video evidence proved this not to be the case, so NASCAR begrudgingly allowed Almirola to recover his lap, but the damage had already been done. Instead of contending for a top-5 finish, Almirola was now way down the order, 17th the best he could manage.
“That penalty was very bizarre; that pretty much ruined our day,” said Almirola, who has swapped crew chiefs with RPM team-mate Marcos Ambrose for the remainder of the season. “It was extremely tough to pass today. Track position was everything. They obviously were in the wrong because they fixed it and gave us our lap back, but it is disappointing.”
It was Biffle who was the top Ford in 13th by the end of the day, as Kenseth suffered a broken shock-absorber which effectively ruled him out of contention.
“I don’t think today has anything to do with next week and going on, but we have to do a better job,” said Kenseth, who will join JGR in 2013. “I was in the back and couldn’t go anywhere; my car just wasn’t fast enough.”