|Keselowski took win at Chicago away from Johnson (Getty)|
He faced down five-time champion Jimmie Johnson when it counted, passing the Coors Light Pole winner and leader of the most laps of the GEICO 400 in a final, green-flag, pit-stop exchange.
Keselowski’s lead is three points over Johnson while 15 is the difference between first and sixth place as the Chase moves to Sunday’s SYLVANIA 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
New Hampshire figures to be another slugfest: Chase qualifiers, led by resurgent Kasey Kahne, took the first nine and 12 of the 13 spots in July’s Loudon race. Kahne, the No. 1 Wild Card qualifier for this year’s chase, advanced six spots from his seeding of 11th with a third-place finish in Chicago.
Four of the last five New Hampshire races have been won by drivers in this year’s Chase: Kahne, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Johnson.
This week’s non-Chase "spoiler" alert: Ryan Newman, last year’s July Loudon winner, who swept both Coors Light Poles and seeks his 50th pole. Newman finished 10th earlier this summer.
The points leader changed in all three national series on the same weekend for the first time in 2012. Keselowski replaced Denny Hamlin in NASCAR Sprint Cup; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed Elliott Sadler in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Ty Dillon ousted Timothy Peters in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
While the Chase continues in New Hampshire, Nationwide and truck teams share a doubleheader weekend at Kentucky Speedway. Each series saw action at the 1.5-mile track in mid-summer with Austin Dillon scoring his first Nationwide victory and James Buescher annexing one of three truck wins to date.
Stenhouse carries a nine-point lead over Sadler into the Saturday afternoon’s Kentucky 300, but that’s not the only hot battle in the Bluegrass State.
The Nationwide Series owners championship remains very much in play with Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota holding a four-point advantage over Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ second trip of the season to Iowa Speedway saw Ryan Blaney become the division’s youngest race winner (18 years eight months) and hand Brad Keselowski Racing its first victory. Dillon finished second to surge past Peters, who was involved in an early accident and finished 19th. Dillon’s lead is eight points over Peters, 11 over Buescher.
Both Blaney and Dillon, age 20 and hopeful of becoming the NCWTS’ youngest and first rookie champion, will go head-to-head again in Friday night’s Kentucky 201.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Keselowski’s First Time Atop Standings Really No Surprise
Brad Keselowski is the points leader following the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. That’s hardly a surprise considering Keselowski came into the Chase with three regular season victories and scored the most points over the previous 10 races. It’s the first time in the 28-year-old Penske Racing driver’s career that Keselowski has headed the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. His previous best ranking was third twice, the last following 2011’s Chase race at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski admits it’s just round one of 10 in what’s certain to be a bruising heavyweight battle. The winner of the Chase’s first race has gone on to become champion just twice – Kurt Busch in 2004 and Tony Stewart a year ago.
Chicagoland Chase Opener Shakes Up The Seedings
Seedings are just a starting point, although the top four entering the Chase remain there – just not in the same order. No. 1 seed Denny Hamlin dropped to fourth, 15 points behind Keselowski, when his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota ran short of fuel on the final lap of Chicagoland’s GEICO 400. Second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson retained the No. 2 spot three points out of the lead while No. 3 seed Tony Stewart is third, eight points back.
Wild Card qualifier Kasey Kahne made the biggest gain – six positions from 11th to fifth, tied with Hamlin and Clint Bowyer 15 points behind Keselowski. Where there are gainers there also are losers. Greg Biffle dropped three spots to eighth; Matt Kenseth three positions to 11th and Kevin Harvick a single position to 10th. Wild Card qualifier Jeff Gordon lost the most in terms of points. A mid-race accident dropped the four-time champion 47 points out of the lead in 12th.
Junior Continues To Focus On Victories As Well As Consistency
Considering he started shotgun on the field – the result of a post-qualifying engine change – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pleased with an eighth-place finish in the Chase opener. But Junior doesn’t see that performance as being good enough to contend for the championship through the coming nine races. Wins were big in the regular season and, according to Earnhardt, will be what it takes to prevail in 2012. Consistency still is a key component of any title run. Earnhardt is one of two Chase qualifiers with no DNFs (Greg Biffle is the other). He and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson share the most top 10s (18).
Chase Qualifiers Ran The Table At New Hampshire In July
July’s LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a perfect gauge of driver strength entering the Chase’s second round. Chase qualifiers, led by Kasey Kahne, finished in the top nine positions. July’s top five was Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski. This year’s Chase drivers have won four of the last five races in Loudon (Kahne, Stewart, Bowyer and Johnson) with Ryan Newman the sole outlier (July 2010). Newman could be this week’s non-Chase "spoiler." He swept last year’s Coors Light Poles at the 1.058-mile track and continues to seek his 50th NASCAR Sprint Cup pole.
Eight Chase drivers have New Hampshire victories led by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart with three wins apiece. The other winners are Clint Bowyer (two), Kahne, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.