JOLIET, Il. – It's not a complete surprise that Brad Keselowski won the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
After all, Keselowski came into the 10-race Chase with three wins in the first 26 pre-Chase races and was seeded in a rather lofty three-way tie for second with Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson among the 12 entrants in NASCAR's marquee event.
But with the commanding way he won Sunday, Keselowski made a pretty strong statement that he's not in the Chase to be another pretty face or a space filler.
Rather, he made it VERY clear that he's in it to win it, plain and simple.
In a way, there's almost a poetic justice in the way Keselowski won Sunday's race. He stole what looked like a guaranteed win for Johnson (who led 172 of the race's 267 laps) by outsmarting the five-time Sprint Cup champ.
With his win Sunday, is Brad Keselowski a legitimate contender to win this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup?
With just over 35 laps to go, Keselowski came off pit road and blended onto traffic admittedly a bit earlier than most drivers do. Rather than come onto the track on the backstretch, he did something that is the bane of drivers everywhere—he pulled directly onto the track right in front of Johnson (who had pitted one lap earlier), causing J.J. to slam on his brakes to avoid a potential crash.
Whether or not it was Keselowski's intention, the incident definitely rattled Johnson. He immediately got on his team radio and asked crew chief Chad Knaus if Keselowski's move was illegal. No. 48 team complained enough that NASCAR officials went to great lengths to review a TV replay, ultimately judging that Keselowski did absolutely nothing wrong.
But in the interim, Johnson appeared shaken enough that it potentially cost him the race. While Johnson waited for NASCAR to make a ruling, Keselowski went out and built a 3.2-second lead, ultimately finishing with a still whopping 3.171 margin of victory.
How many of us could put ourselves in Johnson's position? After all, how many times has another driver merged—alright, let's call it what it is: being cut off—in front of us in an improper fashion on a street or highway, almost causing an accident that was not of our making?
Naturally, your first emotion is to say, "What are you, crazy?", followed by—well, we'll leave out any resulting expletives—but you get the point. When something like that happens, it obviously rattles you and shakes you up, and that's exactly what Keselowski did to Johnson Sunday. It may not show up on the official race results, but it was most definitely a key factor.
With his banzai move, Keselowski got into Johnson's head—and stayed there. How else do you explain that Johnson had such a strong and dominating car for more than two-thirds of the race, only to fall victim to a guy who's driving without a teammate in the Chase, and also in a car whose manufacturer is leaving NASCAR at the end of this season?
In the process, and in similar fashion as he's shown ever since he first came into the Sprint Cup series, Keselowski made it crystal clear Sunday that he won't give an inch to another driver if it means a win or championship can be had.
And that attitude makes him one of the most dangerous foes in the Chase right now. Rather than backing off, Keselowski went for the jugular by pulling in front of Johnson. Had he let Johnson go past before merging onto the race track, it's a good likelihood we would be talking about Jimmie Johnson getting off to a great start in his pursuit of his sixth career Sprint Cup championship.
But ironically, that's exactly what Johnson did anyway. Even though he finished second to Keselowski on Sunday, Johnson is still in an almost equally great position: he's in second place in the Cup standings, just a mere three points behind Keselowski.
That's a heck of a lot better than Johnson's teammate, Jeff Gordon, who wrecked about two-thirds of the way through the race after the throttle linkage on his car stuck, sending him head-on into a wall at full speed and leaving him with both a disappointing 35th-place finish in the race, but an even more disappointing 47 points—now ranked last in the 12-driver Chase field—behind Keselowski in the overall Chase race. While Gordon's Chase hopes aren't exactly over just yet, they've definitely suffered serious injury.
When Keselowski spoke to the media after Sunday's race, he not surprisingly compared his bid to win the championship this season more to boxing terms than sticking with a completely racing analogy. After how Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards engaged in a virtual slugfest in last year's championship—which came down to a mere one point to decide who wound up No. 1 (Stewart) and who wound up No. 2 (Edwards), there really is no other way to put the weight and significance of every Chase race into logical terms.
With Jeff Gordon's wreck Sunday, are his Chase chances already over almost before they began, or can he stil mount a comeback?
"It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it's a 10-round bout," Keselowski said. "Week 1 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."
And then, a few moments later, Keselowski proved to be like a three-sport letterman in high school, citing yet another sports analogy that has little to do with racing—yet is very appropriate to he and his quest this year.
"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. And there's no guarantee of success in this sport—as there's no guarantee of success in any sport—but this one in particular."
"And the way I approach the work ethic of it…(is) as though I were a baseball player at the plate, and you know there's 100 mile-an-hour fastballs coming at you all the time. There's always somebody trying to beat you, but if I go down, I'm going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time. I'm not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out."
"If that means I've got to work harder to go down in that manner, then that's what it's going to be, but it also means I've got a great shot at hitting that ball, and right now that's where our team is at."
As much as he hit a home run Sunday, Keselowski is going to need to hit quite a few more if he's going to win the championship this season. Not only will he continue to have Johnson breathing down his neck, and even with the misfortune that Gordon suffered, it's still too early to count anyone out. Keselowski could tank in the next race (this coming Sunday at New Hampshire), while Gordon could bounce back to win, and what we saw Sunday would subsequently mean very little in the whole big scheme of things in the Chase.
No, Keselowski was happy with what he did Sunday, but check back with him in nine weeks if he's still feeling the same.
"I'm not going to feel good until it's over, I'm really not," he said. "There's not going to be a weekend where you go, 'all right, it should be easy for me.' That's just not the way this sport works, and we see that time after time after time."
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.