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 in Joliet, Ill., 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.
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.
The gamble with 15 laps remaining put Keselowski 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 straight victory and Sprint Cup Series-leading fifth of the year.
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,’ ” team owner Roger 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.
Gordon, trying for his fifth NASCAR championship, wound up second while Larson, the rookie who flirted with Chase contention, was third.
Joey Logano was fourth and Harvick faded to fifth after leading a race-high 79 laps.
Rain washed out most of the final eliminations Sunday in the Countdown-opening NHRA Carolina Nationals, forcing series officials to postpone them until next weekend during qualifying rounds for the Texas NHRA FallNationals.
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