Full Throttle contributor attends first Chase race
By Nicholas Dettmann
JOLIET, Ill. – Brad Keselowski picked up where he left in Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 15 laps to go and went on to the victory in the first race of the Chase.
Under the new Chase format, the victory secured Keselowski into the second-round of the playoffs, which will start after the series’ stops at Loudon and Dover.
“I guess you couldn’t ask for a better way to start the Chase other than starting up front,” Keselowski said. “Just phenomenal with the way things played out.”
Like he did in 2012 on his way to his first championship, Keselowski started the 2014 Chase in victory lane.
Jeff Gordon finished second, followed by Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Harvick to round out the top five. Larson was the only non-Chase driver in the top five and at times looked like he was going to win his first career Sprint Cup race.
It capped an impressive day for the rookie as he had to go to a backup car after crashing in practice earlier in the weekend. He started Sunday’s race in 42nd, but led 20 laps of the 267 run.
“Yeah, it was a good race,” Larson said. “We were in a backup car. It was hauling butt. It was really good.
“We knew from the drop of the green we’d be pretty good. Once the ling got around the wall where I like to run a lot, we were really fast; had a blast the whole race.”
It was also a strong day for Chip Ganassi Racing as Jamie McMurray finished ninth. Larson and McMurray were the only non-Chase drivers in the top 13.
Harvick led the most laps (79).
For Gordon, he will enter next weekend’s race in New Hampshire seven points behind Keselowski.
“Our car was just solid,” he said. “That’s the way you want to get this thing started.”
When asked how it felt to have an opportunity to relax the next race weekends, Keselowski jokingly replied, “We can drink more beer.”
On a serious note, his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, had a different perspective.
“We’re going to continue to work hard,” he said. “We’re not going to go on vacation here for the next two weeks. We’re going to continue to try to make our race cars better and be prepared really well for round two.”
Keselowski was able to be serious, too.
“So I want to be thankful for today, but I know there’s a long ways to go,” Keselowski said.
“Certainly don’t want to lose focus on the seven races after that, as well,” he added.
Under the new format, the four drivers in the Chase with the lowest points total will be eliminated every three races, setting up a four-driver battle for the championship in the season finale at Homestead. A victory in each round, qualifies the winner into the next round, even if the driver finishes among the four with the lowest point totals.
The other Chase drivers were Denny Hamlin (sixth), Kyle Busch (seventh), Kurt Busch (eighth), Matt Kenseth (10th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th), Jimmie Johnson (12th), Kasey Kahne (13th), Ryan Newman (15th), Carl Edwards (20th), AJ Allmendinger (22nd), Greg Biffle (23rd) and Aric Almirola (41st).
For Newman, he rallied for being three laps down to finish in the top 15. Almirola was running in the top five until an engine failure ended his race on lap 230.
As it stands, the final four going into New Hampshire are Newman, Allmendinger, Biffle and Almirola.
It was an up and down day for each of the Chase drivers, including Keselowski, who won the series’ last race Sept. 6 at Richmond to finish the regular season.
A pit-road mistake dropped him outside the top 15 at one point in the race.
“I knew we were going to need to catch a break to get to victory lane from there,” Keselowski said. “That was going to be tough. We did catch a small one. But I was really surprised how much speed we had to get as close as we did to the front there. That was amazing.
“We restarted 16th or 17th in position, but probably had to be 30th or something in car order. So to get by that many cars, get close to the front, was really an incredible run, and put us in position to capitalize when that yellow came out. That was something that all came together.”
Keselowski started the race in 25th.
Others who had to overcome mistakes were Kurt Busch, Kenseth and Harvick. Busch and Kenseth each spun at the entrance of pit road, while Harvick had a loose lug nut after a yellow-flag pit stop.
The race’s final caution came out with eight laps to go when Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with each other and both made contact with the Turn 4 wall.
Keselowski got the jump on the restart and cruised to the victory, his series-leading fifth of the season.
“I’m still very thankful for what we were able to do today,” Keselowski said. “We got to keep pushing.”