JOLIET, Ill. — Brad Keselowski saw one shot in front of him to steal the win in the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
He had twice picked his way through the field Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, and found himself watching a spirited, side-by-side battle for the lead between Kevin Harvick and rookie Kyle Larson. As everyone else held their breath watching the Harvick and Larson duel, Keselowski saw his opening and pounced.
He used a daring three-wide drive through the middle to grab the lead for good.
“I just saw a hole, and I went for it,” he said. “I didn’t know if my car would stick or not, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it.”
The win in the first race of the 10-race Chase automatically advances Keselowski, the top seed in the 16-driver field, into the second round. NASCAR this year has debuted an elimination format and four drivers will be knocked out after every third race.
As Team Penske celebrated in Victory Lane, Keselowski moved his name on a bracket-type Chase grid into the next round.
“I guess you couldn’t ask for a better way to start the Chase,” he said. “Today was about as much of a statement as you can make.”
Keselowski opened the 2012 Chase with a win at Chicago and went on to his first Sprint Cup title. He failed to make the Chase last year and was ineligible to defend his title, but has raced this entire year as if he’s on a mission to win a second championship.
Now he can race for fun the next two weeks as he awaits the Chase reset following the Sept. 28 race at Dover — all because he went for broke on Sunday.
“The first thing we wanted to do was get a win for one of our cars so we’re automatically in the next round,” team owner Roger Penske said. “With Brad being able to split in between (Larson) and (Harvick), it was the winning move.”
The gamble with 15 laps remaining put Keselowski solidly out front, and he easily pulled away from the field while Harvick and Larson had their hands full trying to hold off Jeff Gordon.
Then contact between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. set up one final restart with six laps to go, but Keselowski again surged to the front for his second consecutive victory and Sprint Cup Series-leading fifth of the year.
It was a huge turnaround from Friday’s opening practice, when he and Penske teammate Joey Logano struggled to find speed. Keselowski started 25th, but worked his way up to second, only to give it all up following a questionable pit stop under yellow.
The rear tire changer fretted he didn’t get the wheel on tight enough, and crew chief Paul Wolfe had to make a split-second decision on if they should address the issue or see how it played out.
Wolfe decided to give up track position and bring Keselowski back to the pits under yellow instead of gambling there wasn’t a problem and it backfiring under green.
“The real winner today is the young man that changes the rear tire, (he) put his hand up and said ‘Hey, I screwed up. The wheel might be loose,’” Penske said. “Paul had the guts to say on the radio, ‘We’re not going to go out and run to find out. We’re coming in now.’”
It made for an exciting finish a week after Keselowski led all but 17 laps in a snoozer of a regular-season finale.
It also put the rest of the Chase field on notice that Keselowski is a very strong title contender. Although 12 Chase drivers finished in the top 15, Sunday proved they’ll all have their hands full with Keselowski, Gordon and Harvick.
Gordon, trying for his fifth NASCAR championship, wound up second while Larson, the rookie who flirted with Chase contention, was third.
Logano was fourth and Harvick faded to fifth after leading a race-high 79 laps.
Chase-eligible drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch took the next three spots, while Larson teammate Jamie McMurray was ninth.
Matt Kenseth finished 10th as all three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers finished inside the top 10.
The next three spots went to Hendrick Motorsports as Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., six-time and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne finished 11th through 13th.
Ryan Newman battled back from three laps down to finish 15th, but the rest of the Chase field didn’t fare as well. Carl Edwards wound up 20th after a tire problem, AJ Allmendinger (22nd) and Greg Biffle (23rd) weren’t competitive, and Aric Almirola finished 41st after an engine failure.
It was a devastating blow for Almirola, an underdog in the Chase who ran as high as fourth in the race. He was sixth and headed for a routine pit stop when his engine suddenly failed. He was greeted with a hug from Hall of Famer Richard Petty, his car owner, in the garage.
“Heartbroken, I think, is the easiest way to describe it,” Almirola said. “We know we are capable of running in the top 10. Everyone else might not think so, the rest of the world thinks we are underdogs, and we will gladly accept that tag. We don’t have anything to hang our heads about.”
The four drivers at the bottom of the standings and currently in danger of being eliminated are Newman, Allmendinger, Biffle and Almirola.