For a race-high 172 laps Sunday in the opening Chase for the Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, it appeared five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was sending a strong and intimidating message to the rest of the field.
But Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Dodge team did not flinch.
In fact, toward the very end of the GEICO 400, it was Keselowski who beat Johnson out of the pits and even made the No. 48 team appear to grasp at straws a bit, taking the lead for good in the process.
*Video: Keselowski gets past Johnson, cruises to Chicagoland win
So take notice, folks: there is a new heavyweight player in this year's Chase. In fact, Keselowski said as much as he celebrated in Victory Lane.
"We're in Victory Lane one race into the Chase," Keselowski said. "It feels like Round One of a heavyweight title bout. You know it's good to win it, it feels great, but there are a lot of rounds left."
After taking the lead from Johnson on the strength of a stout 12.9-second, four-tire-and-fuel pit stop with 35 laps remaining, Keselowski ran away with Round One. Nine rounds remain on the Chase schedule as he continues in his dogged attempt to give Penske Racing owner Roger Penske his first championship in NASCAR's top national touring series.
So, yes, there is still a long way to go. But to pick off the first one on an afternoon when Johnson seemed to have the entire field covered meant a great deal to both the winning driver and the winning owner. Remember, Johnson's nickname is Five-Time because of the five consecutive championships he won prior to last season.
"They're the gold standard. And we want to beat 'em," Penske said.
Penske was more than a little bummed after he lost out on the IndyCar Series championship in the final race of that season Saturday night, when driver Will Power appeared to have the championship in hand before wrecking at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
But the motorsports icon never considered missing out on Chicagoland for Sunday's race. Keselowski wouldn't let him.
"I've got to check in with Brad," Penske said. "He expects me here."
Keselowski likely won't have to double check with Penske about the owner's attendance plans the rest of the way in the Chase. But the energetic driver probably will anyway.
"He won't let me sleep, I can tell you that," said Penske, who at age 75 could use a good night's rest now and then. "I get Twitters; I'm a big texter now. ... He and I are talking all the time. I've got to get to my day job sometimes, I tell him."
While Penske arrived at the race track Sunday licking his wounds a bit from Saturday night's IndyCar disappointment, Keselowski already was having a great weekend. On Friday night, when 18-year-old rookie driver Ryan Blaney won the Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway, Keselowski registered his first NASCAR win as a team owner.
Sunday's win only put an exclamation point on the driver's fabulous weekend.
"A great weekend is what I'm thinking now," he said.
And it became that not only because of when he won and how he won, but who he beat. Keselowski ruffled the composure of the 48 team slightly when he hustled onto the race track in front of Johnson before the final restart. Johnson said Keselowski "impeded my progress" as Five-Time attempted to guide his No. 48 Chevrolet onto the track. But Johnson also admitted it likely didn't matter in the long run -- because Keselowski was better on the final long run, stretching his lead to more than three seconds.
"It didn't affect the outcome, I don't believe," Johnson said. "The way he 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 an outcome in the race."
Hungry for more
Keselowski already has produced the only NASCAR championship Penske has ever claimed when won the 2010 Nationwide Series title. But it has been obvious he wants more for a long time -- even before Penske ever officially employed him.
"I think you've got to go back to the year before we hired him," Penske said. "At one point he came by to see us, and he said he'd like to come and race for our team. But he couldn't do it; he had a commitment [to JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports at the time].
"But he said, 'I want to help build a team to win the championship.' And I think he's never forgotten that. That was the year before he started driving for us. He was focused then."
Keselowski has been focused not only on his own team, but also on the 48 team of Johnson's for quite some time. Back when he drove for owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series -- and occasionally for Hendrick Motorsports and owner James Finch in Cup -- Keselowski kept a close watch on Johnson during the No. 48 team's run of five consecutive championships.
He tried to deflect the suggestion that he sent his own message to Johnson and the 48 guys on Sunday, but the implication was there.
"It's not for me to speak about a mental edge," Keselowski said. "That's for you guys [in the media] to speculate. ... But when you're winning races and running up front like we did [Sunday], it means a lot to everybody. It means a lot for your own team, and it means a lot to others sometimes. I know that watching the 48 win quite often, that does have an effect over time -- a psychological advantage."
For the 172 laps the No. 48 led Sunday, it seemed like Johnson was building toward that. Then the new kid knocked the old champ to the canvas.
It's only Round One and Johnson finished a solid second, so he's already up and ready for more in Round Two. But at least Keselowski sent his own message instead of receiving one in the opener, while everybody else was pretty much reduced to ringside onlooker status.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Jimmie Johnson
- Brad Keselowski
- Roger Penske