Driver Brad Keselowski and team Miller Lite Dodge celebrate winning the GEICO 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet Sunday, September 16, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
CHase for the sprint cup
1. Brad Keselowski 2,056
2. Jimmie Johnson 2,053
3. Tony Stewart 2,048
4. Denny Hamlin 2,041
5. Kasey Kahne 2,041
6. Clint Bowyer 2,041
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,039
8. Greg Biffle 2,037
9. Martin Truex Jr. 2,035
10. Kevin Harvick 2,032
11. Matt Kenseth 2,030
12. Jeff Gordon 2,009
Updated: October 18, 2012 6:12AM
Roger Penske wasn’t sure what to expect at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet during Sunday’s GEICO 400, the opening race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Penske, the iconic Indy Car owner who has yet to win a NASCAR championship, watched Penske Racing driver Will Power lose the IZOD IndyCar title to Ryan Hunter-Reay at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Saturday night. Power blew a 17-point lead in the standings when he wrecked, enabling Hunter-Reay to win the title.
But Penske knows how important the Chase is, and his spirits were lifted when Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski beat Jimmie Johnson by three seconds. The victory puts Keselowski in the points lead over Johnson by three points and eight points over defending Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Chase driver Kasey Kahne finished third, Kyle Busch was fourth and Ryan Newman fifth. Stewart was sixth.
Keselowski led 76 laps, but Johnson started on the pole and led a whopping 172. It was almost reminiscent of Johnson’s victory at the Brickyard 400 in July, where he led nearly the whole race and there was no chance of anyone beating him.
But Keselowski figured Johnson out and kept the five-time champion winless in the Cup series at Chicagoland.
Keselowski took the lead on lap 105 but fell to second at the 165-lap mark of the 267-lap race. He regained the lead with about 11 laps to go and maintained a two- to three-second lead over Johnson.
After a late-race pit stop put Keselowski in the lead, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, thought Keselowski did not re-enter the race track properly. But Johnson said it did not affect the race outcome and NASCAR did not make a ruling against Keselowski.
“It’s a policy of merging down the back stretch, off of turn two, and I feel like that’s what we did,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski’s victory and his leap to the No. 1 spot in the standings eased Penske’s pain of the night before.
“Last night was tough on Will, but winning the first race of the Chase is fantastic,” owner Roger Penske said. “After last night I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. I was planning to come win or lose.
“The year before he started with us, he said he wanted to build a championship team. He’s got high integrity and that’s something we want.”
Keselowski’s victory also is helping Penske forget his problems with ex-Penske drivers AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch.
Penske fired Busch in the offseason after Busch was verbally abusive to a pit reporter at Homestead-Miami last November. Then Penske fired Allmendinger earlier this summer after Allmendinger failed a drug test and NASCAR suspended him indefinitely.
If Keselowski holds onto the points lead and wins the Cup in November, it will be the last Cup title for Dodge and first since Richard Petty’s title in 1975. Penske announced in March that he was switching to Ford in 2013. A few months later, Dodge decided to pull out of NASCAR.
“I’m going to go down swinging as hard as I can,” Keselowski said. “If that means I have to work harder, then that’s what it’s going to be.”
Points leader Denny Hamlin ran out of gas on the last lap and finished 16th, barely ahead of Aric Almirola who was the first car in lapped traffic. Hamlin fell to fourth in the standings, 15 behind Keselowski.
“We didn’t get the car full [of gas on a pit stop], and we made an adjustment instead,” Hamlin said. “It put me in a box and I was trying to hold my position and slow down. But that’s the way it goes. It’s frustrating. It’s tough to lose that many spots that late.”
Among other Chase drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to start from the back of the field after crew chief Steve Letarte decided to change engines Saturday.
Earnhardt qualified fourth, but after his qualifying run Letarte went with the switch. NASCAR rules dictate that cars need to move to the back of the field if they change engines after qualifying.
During qualifying, Earnhardt accidentally over-revved the engine and knocked it out of gear. Crew chief Steve Letarte erred on the side of caution and replaced the engine. Earnhardt climbed through the field and finished eighth.
“I was disappointed making that mistake with the engine,” Earnhardt said. “We had a great car for the first 100 to 130 laps. We had a really fast car. And then we made the car ordinary and we had to maintain track position.”