The new NASCAR tour leader, Brad Keselowski
By Mike Mulhern
Jimmie Johnson dominated virtually all Sunday afternoon, but Brad Keselowski outfoxed him on the final round of pit stops, under green, and Keselowski used the clean air to his advantage, holding Johnson at bay down the stretch to win the Chicago 400.
The three-hour event at Chicagoland Speedway opens the 10-race NASCAR championship playoffs. And Keselowski, with his fourth win of the season, now heads to New Hampshire for Round Two atop the Sprint Cup standings for the first time in his career.
Roger Penske, Keselowski's team owner, flew in here from Los Angeles after the disappointing Saturday night Indy-car finale, was remarkably enthusiastic about the finish. "We've wanted to race Jimmie for years, side by side, and that last pit stop was a 12.9, which got us out there," Penske said. Penske, in his 40 years in the NASCAR world, has yet to win a Cup championship, and Keselowski may be his best bet yet.
"To beat Jimmie and to win the first race of the chase, you've got to be happy when you go home," Penske said.
"They're the benchmark; that's the gold standard we have to compete against. You guys like noise; we're going to give you some noise."
Indeed Keselowski's last pit stop was a bit controversial, at least from Johnson's standpoint. Not only was Johnson comfortably in command when the final round of stops came, but Keselowski came out of the pits on that stop very aggressively, catching Johnson on the backstretch....and making a move Johnson didn't like, in merging.
This is the video of the controversial move by Keselowski: http://bit.ly/Nwy6HW
Title challengers took seven of the top 10 finishing positions; Kyle Busch was the only non-chase player in any position to battle for the win, but he never led a lap.
"I don't know what happened at the end -- either Jimmie slowed down the last run or we speeded up," Keselowski said.
"This is like Round One of a heavyweight. But only Round One, and we've got a long way to go."
Jeff Gordon: a hung throttle. Odd, in this 'safety' age (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski had been one of those pointedly criticizing that mysterious trick rear-end piece that Johnson and the Rick Hendrick teams had used most of the summer. NASCAR outlawed that piece effective with this race, though never revealing just what the device was. Kevin Harvick was one of the men criticizing NASCAR for its timing in banning that device while rivals were spending so much time and money developing their own version of the trick.
So with Johnson and teammate Kasey Kahne dominating things for most of the warm, sunny afternoon, it was looking like Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, had something new that worked just as well, or even better.
In fact all the Hendrick teams were powerful, usually with four of the six Hendrick-engineering teams running top-10.
However in the end it was a stunning turnaround with Keselowski winning.
The apparent winning move was during the final round of pit stops, under green. Johnson pitted first, Keselowski pitted the next time around. And Keselowski was very aggressive on his pit entry and pit exit, making enough ground up on Johnson to grab the lead.
Johnson and Knaus were not a bit happy with Keselowski's move, with Knaus complaining to NASCAR officials, to no avail.
Johnson: "He did come up early (back onto the racing groove, on the backstretch), and it did impede my progress. At the time it messed me up... but I don't think it played a role in the outcome of the race.
"That last run he was just better.
"But to come out of here second is a great day...a great way to start the chase."
How did that final Keselowski pit stop really go? How did Keselowski and crew beat Johnson to take the lead?
"I was a little surprised myself," Wolfe says. "I thought with the lead they (Johnson) had, they would at least be able to keep that.
"But the pit crew did a great job. And Brad has been one of the best guys on and off pit road."
That final round of pit stops, Wolfe said, "was key.
"As the closing laps came, it looked like it was going to be between us and Jimmie. Obviously clean air is so important, and to be have a great stop like we did was the key.
"I felt they would mount a little more of a challenge, but we were able to pull away. I was a little surprised by that. I'm not sure what was going on with their car.
"But I would say the best car won for sure."
Keselowski said blending back into race traffic, as he did, is not particularly that well defined here: "There is no enforced line like you see in other sports.
"And that's not a bad thing.
"But it's certainly a.... I don't want to say a 'gentlemen's agreement'.....It's a policy of merging down the back stretch.
"I feel that's what we did.
"You can make rules that count it down to the inches and just make it a pain in the ass for everybody... or you can just have a rule like we do.
"And I felt I was inside those guidelines. I think NASCAR agreed as well, based on their no-call.
"But certainly that's something we'll continue to get better clarification...."
Johnson was rather magnanimous in accepting that move.
Johnson: "He did cut up early. It did impede my progress; 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."
Denny Hamlin: not enough fuel on that last pit stop (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski was one of the first to raise publicly the issue of Johnson's odd rear-end setup, during Johnson's Brickyard 400 romp at Indianapolis in late July, saying he felt there that he was driving a truck while Johnson was driving 'a real race car.'
Here after winning, Keselowski said he was proud of crew chief Paul Wolf's newest creation: "I've got hotrods now instead of trucks. A new race car and a nice piece."
The days three big losers among the 12 title contenders were Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
Gordon's throttle hung just past halfway, while he was running fourth. He hit the wall hard, and he finished 35th.
Hamlin ran out of the gas the last lap and faded suddenly to 16th.
And Kenseth had an odd chassis problem, breaking a spring. He wound up 18th.
While those issues don't necessarily knock them out of title contention, they are a major setback.
"We didn't make the car full," Hamlin said. "They said I was four laps short...and that put me in a box.
"It's tough to lose that many spots like that."
Matt Kenseth: a bad day, a broken shock (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth was not happy either: "We had a brake line get loose at Bristol and a shock fall off today, so obviously we have to get to the bottom of that," he said, pointing to quality control issues.
Kenseth of course just announced officially that he would be leaving the Jack Roush camp after 14 years and move to rival Joe Gibbs for 2013.
"We have to do a better job," Kenseth said. "We didn't have a very fast car to start with. We had a real good qualifying lap and good track position and thought we could maybe sneak out a top-10... which isn't nearly good enough but it would still keep you in the game.
"When we had that problem, we got so far behind."
Teammate Greg Biffle was a disappointment too, showing little speed, even though this was the same tire combination that he and crew chief Matt Puccia used to win the Texas 500 back in the spring.
"We were really going good there at the end, and we did our last stop and the car just went bad," Biffle said, perplexed. "It just got way too loose, and we were hooking the bottom.
"I don't even really know what happened. It never fails --the last stop of the day we put our tires on and it went bad."
A beautiful Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)