JOLIET, Ill. — Brad Keselowski raced to an impressive victory in the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, outdueling five-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday.
Keselowski got ahead of Johnson after a crucial pit cycle with about 35 laps remaining and led the final 26 laps in the 400-mile race, holding on comfortably from there for his first victory in a Chase race. He also takes over the points lead.
Kasey Kahne was third. All 12 of the Chase drivers finished in the top 18, with the exception of Jeff Gordon, who went into the wall with about 80 laps remaining. Gordon barely qualified for the Chase to begin with, and his championship hopes are already in serious jeopardy after his 35th-place showing Sunday.
It’s Keselowski’s fourth victory of the season. He leads Johnson by three points — and gave Penske Racing a reason to feel good after Will Power’s failed bid for the IndyCar championship Saturday night in California.
Kyle Busch finished fourth, the best performance of any driver not in the Chase. Among other Chase qualifiers, defending champion Tony Stewart was sixth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was eighth, Martin Truex Jr. was ninth and Clint Bowyer was 10th. Kevin Harvick finished 12th, one spot ahead of Greg Biffle.
Denny Hamlin, the top seed coming in, fell all the way to 16th in the race while low on fuel at the end, and Matt Kenseth finished 18th.
Keselowski won by 3.171 seconds in his No. 2 Dodge. There were only four cautions for 23 laps, the last coming when Gordon needed to return to the garage with damage to the right side of his car.
“Disappointing,” said Gordon, who started the race in 19th position. “We had to fight hard to come from 19th up there in the top five, and the car was feeling good.”
The 28-year-old Keselowski has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races. He leads the points standings for the first time.
Johnson has finished in the top 10 in nine of his 11 Cup races at Chicagoland — but never won. He led 172 of the 267 laps Sunday, sending a clear signal that his No. 48 Chevrolet is a threat to win back the championship after his five-year run of titles ended in 2011.
Johnson said he felt Keselowski crossed a restraining line too early when exiting after that crucial pit stop near the end, but he said he wasn’t sure that had any effect on the final outcome. The incident was reviewed and there was no infraction called.