JOLIET, Ill. - Winner of five consecutive Sprint Cup Championships from 2006 through 2010, Jimmie Johnson is hard to outwit or outdrive.
But Brad Keselowski found a way to do it in Sunday's Geico 400, kicking off the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a huge win for the driver of the No. 2 Dodge and Penske Racing.
There's no question that Keselowski beat Johnson, but it was the way he got there that ultimately proved to be the difference between winning and letting Johnson get past him.
On the final round of pit stops under green-flag conditions, with just over 30 laps to go, Keselowski came back on the track one lap after Johnson had service on his car, and then pulled in front of Johnson coming out of Turn 2, causing Johnson to step on his brakes to avoid a collision.
Johnson got on his team radio and questioned his opponent's move, believing it was illegal, that Keselowski merged into traffic sooner than was allowed. He implied that Keselowski intentionally pulled in front of him to slow him down while Keselowski gained an advantage at the same time.
However, NASCAR did not cite Keselowski for any violations and the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge continued to motor on to his eighth career Sprint Cup win, building a lead of as much 3.2 seconds as the closing laps clicked off before ending up with a 3.17-second winning margin over Johnson.
After the race, Johnson, who had hoped for an early birthday present (he turns 37 on Monday) with a win Sunday, backed off on his complaints and said he didn't believe Keselowski's move influenced the results too much.
"It didn't affect the outcome, I believe," said Johnson, who dominated by leading 171 of Sunday's 267 laps, only to fall short. "The way he made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have caught him. At the time, it messed me up, but I don't think it played out in the outcome of the race."
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-five finish fade to a disappointing 16th-place showing.
"I don't know what happened, (Johnson) either slowed down or we sped up," Keselowski said. "We just took off from there. Winning the first race in the Chase feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout. It's good to win it and it feels great, but there's a lot of rounds to go. It's a good start, but there's a long ways to go."
Johnson finished second, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne in third. Kyle Busch was fourth and Ryan Newman finished fifth. Of note, the latter two are non-Chase contenders.
Sixth through 10th were defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, 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.
Keselowski assumes the early lead in the Chase standings, leading Johnson now by three points. Stewart is third (minus-8), followed by a three-way tie for fourth among Hamlin (minus-15), Kahne and Bowyer.
"Congratulations to Brad and those guys, they did an awesome job," Johnson said. "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 Earnhardt 17 points back in seventh, followed by Greg Biffle in eighth (-minus 19), Truex in ninth (minus-21), Kevin Harvick in 10th (minus-24), Matt Kenseth in 11th (minus-26) and Jeff Gordon in 12th, a disappointing 47 points behind Keselowski.
The first significant disaster for any of the Chase drivers came on Lap 189 when Gordon slammed hard into the Turn 2 wall. While it initially appeared to be a tire issue, it proved to be something entirely different.
"We were having a good day," Gordon said during the caution period on ESPN. "We got up to the top five, and who knows what we could have done, but we had the throttle stick. We'll try to make up every spot and every place we can."
Kenseth, who is in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing (he'll move to Joe Gibbs Racing next season), also had problems when a shock absorber fell off his car, not only bringing out a caution flag, but also giving Kenseth fits when it came to handling of his Ford race car.
His team was able to eventually replace the shock, but the mishap pushed Kenseth far back in the pack.
Changing weather conditions - and more heat than we saw in practice on Friday and qualifying on Saturday - threw several crew chiefs for a loop in Sunday's race. They either overcompensated, resulting in tight conditions on race cars, or undercompensated, leading to cars that were too loose.
NOTES: Earnhardt started the race from the 42nd position after his team changed the motor in his Chevrolet after qualifying on Saturday. ... Despite hopes by track officials that the race would have a strong walk-up of fans on Sunday morning to bring about a sellout, the numbers weren't enough to fill every seat. Still, Chicagoland Speedway filled about 70,000 of its 75,000 seats. ... Surprisingly, there was no overhead blimp over the track.