JOLIET, Ill. - Having won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010, it's hard to outwit or outdrive Jimmie Johnson.
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 beat Johnson off pit road. But then the eventual race winner did something a bit unusual: Instead of merging back onto the track on the back stretch, which is typical, he cut back onto the track coming out of Turn 2.
Johnson got on his team radio and questioned his opponent's move, believing it was illegal, that he merged into traffic sooner than was allowed.
However, NASCAR did not cite Keselowski for any violations and Keselowski continued to motor on, building a lead by of as much 3.2 seconds as the closing laps clicked off.
After the race, Johnson backed off on his complaints and said he didn't believe Keselowski's move affected the outcome too much.
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 Denny Hamlin (minus-15), who ran out of fuel on the final lap and lost several positions, ultimately finishing 16th, Kahne and Bowyer.
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 rounds out the Chase dozen, 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 initial thoughts were it was 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 5 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.