JOLIET – Jimmie Johnson has spent his career finding innumerable ways to snooker his fellow competitors. He's obviously become a great practitioner of that art, given his record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.
But in Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Johnson ultimately found himself in an odd position. Rather than being the guy who does the snookering, he wound up being the snookered in the first of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Brad Keselowski won his eighth and perhaps the biggest race of his young Cup career, holding off Johnson to not only win but also to take the top spot in the Chase standings with nine races now remaining.
Amidst a near-sellout crowd of 70,000, how the Michigan native won Sunday's race looked awfully familiar, almost as if he had stolen a page from Johnson's own "How To Snooker An Opponent" book.
Johnson made his final pit stop for fresh tires and fuel under green flag conditions on Lap 230 of the 267-lap race. Keselowski came into the pits one lap later, received service to his car and then quickly motored back onto the racetrack.
Too quick in Johnson's mind, at least at the outset. Rather than merging into traffic on the backstretch of the 1.5-mile racetrack, Keselowski unexpectedly pulled back onto the track – and not surprisingly, right in front of Johnson, who was forced to stomp on his brakes to avoid a collision.
At first, Johnson was none too pleased at Keselowski's move, asking crew chief Chad Knaus over the team radio whether what his opponent did was a legal move. But upon review of the TV footage, NASCAR officials judged Keselowski's move was within the rules.
Johnson has pulled that kind of move several times in his career, even to his own teammates (just ask Jeff Gordon), but he obviously didn't like the tables being turned upon him in the same fashion. Whether it affected him or put a serious dent in Johnson's mojo, the fact remains that Keselowski would go on to a commanding 3.171 margin of victory and become the new Chase points leader.
After the race, Johnson was more contrite, claiming in hindsight that Keselowski did nothing wrong.
"It didn't affect the outcome, I believe," said Johnson, who dominated by leading 172 of Sunday's 267 laps, only to fall short. "The way (Keselowski) made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off. At the time, it messed me up but I don't think it played out in the outcome of the race."
Keselowski himself was somewhat taken aback at how the circumstances unfolded and eventually played out.
"I don't know what happened, (Johnson) either slowed down or we sped up," Keselowski said. "We just took off from there."
Keselowski has now won four races this season, tying him for the series lead with Denny Hamlin – who ran out of fuel on the final lap and saw what could have been a Top-5 finish fade to a disappointing 16th-place showing. Hamlin had entered the Chase as the No. 1 seed, but Sunday's finished dropped him to fourth place with nine races remaining in NASCAR's marquee playoffs, 15 points behind the new series leader.
Keselowski was like a pesky fly most of the race. While Johnson clearly had the dominant car, Keselowski continually hovered right behind or within a few spots of his opponent, waiting for what would prove to be the most opportune time to strike.
He couldn't have timed it any better with the way he pulled out in front of – and likely rattled – Johnson, and then while Johnson's Chevrolet seemed to fade in the closing laps, Keselowski's Dodge just got stronger and stronger.
While there's no question Keselowski is thrilled to have the lead in the standings, he also knows there's still a lot of racing left in the Chase. He may have beaten Johnson at his own game, but Johnson is not the type of driver who will forget what Keselowski did Sunday. Mark my word, Johnson will be looking for payback at some point – and Keselowski knows it.
"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."
Behind the winning Keselowski and runner-up Johnson, Kasey Kahne finished third in Sunday's race, followed by non-Chase entrants Kyle Busch in fourth and Ryan Newman in fifth. Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was sixth, followed by non-Chaser Joey Logano in seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from the back of the pack to finish eighth, Martin Truex Jr. was ninth and Clint Bowyer rounded out the Top 10.
As for the overall Chase picture, Keselowski assumes the early lead in the Chase standings, leading Johnson now by three points. Stewart is third (minus-8), followed with a three-way tie for fourth between Hamlin, Kahne and Bowyer, all 15 points behind the new leader.
"Congratulations to Brad and those guys, they did an awesome job," said Johnson, who was hoping for an early birthday present with a win Sunday (he turns 37 on Monday). "But, it's a great way to start the Chase for us. There's 10 long races and a lot can happen, but to come out of here second is a great day for us. Sure, we'd rather be in victory lane, but we'll take the second and go on to the next one (next Sunday in New Hampshire) and we're real happy where we're seeded at going into the second round."
The rest of the Chase standings find Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17 points back in seventh, Greg Biffle in eighth (minus-19), Truex in ninth (minus-21), Kevin Harvick 10th (minus-24), Matt Kenseth 11th (minus-26) and Jeff Gordon went from being a potential Chase dark horse to now sitting a distant 47 points behind Keselowski in the 12th and final Chase position.
So, did the guy who has been snookered a number of times in the past by Johnson, feel any different in finally being able to return the favor Sunday? Not that much, Keselowski said, pointing instead to the bigger picture overall. He may have won the battle Sunday, but there's still that nine-race war still hanging over everyone's heads.
In fact, even though he makes his living driving a race car, Keselowski likened the task still ahead as more of a baseball game than a race to the finish line.
"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."
It's too bad Keselowski doesn't play baseball, too. With an attitude like that, the Cubs could certainly use a guy like him.
Tags: Jimmie Johnson
, Chicagoland Speedway
, Brad Keselowski
, Geico 400