With a pass for the lead that seemed certain to spark controversy in the Hendrick Motorsports camp, Keselowski won Sunday’s Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Keselowski took the lead over Johnson, the polesitter, after an exchange of green-flag pit stops, with Keselowski re-entering the track one lap later than Johnson, on Lap 231, and pulling up in front of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet off Turn 2 on Lap 232.
Keselowski inherited the top spot on Lap 242 after the pit stops cycled through and led the final 26 laps of the race.
“It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout,” said Keselowski, who took the series points lead for the first time in his career. “It’s a 10-round bout. Week one’s done. We might have won the round, but we didn’t by any means knock ’em out.
“We’ve got a lot of racing left to go. We’re feeling good about today, but (we) know that we have a lot of work to do.”
Keselowski pulled away to win by 3.171 seconds over Johnson, who led a race-high 172 laps but couldn’t catch Keselowski during the last green-flag run.
The victory was Keselowski’s fourth of the season, his first at Chicagoland and the eighth of his career. Kasey Kahne ran third, followed by Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, as Keselowski took a three-point lead in the Chase standings over second-place Johnson with nine races left in NASCAR’s playoff.
During the race, NASCAR looked at videotape of Keselowski’s return to the track in front of Johnson and decided no action was warranted.
At first perturbed by what he considered Keselowski’s early entry into the racing groove, Johnson said after the race that the outcome didn’t hinge on that particular situation.
“He did cut up early,” Johnson said. “It did impede my progress. I had to check up and wasn’t sure where things were going. But it didn’t affect the outcome, I don’t believe.
“The way he made quick work of 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 (a part in the) outcome in the race.”
Keselowski thought he was well within the spirit and letter of the law in re-entering off Turn 2.
“There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that’s not a bad thing,” Keselowski said. “That’s just one more thing to monitor during the race. But it’s certainly a, I don’t want to say a gentlemen’s agreement, it’s a policy of merging down the backstretch, off of Turn 2, I think it said specifically in the driver’s meeting, and I feel like that’s what we did.
“You can make rules that count it down to the inches and just make it a pain in the [neck] for everybody that participates in the sport, or you can just have a rule like we do, and I felt like I was inside those guidelines.”
A caution for Casey Mears’ crash into the Turn 2 wall brought out the third caution of the race on Lap 149 and interrupted a cycle of green-flag pit stops. Johnson, Keselowski and Kahne had not pitted before the caution, and that trio remained out front for a restart on Lap 158.
Johnson quickly opened a gap of one second on Keselowski, with Kahne trailing the leader by more than four seconds as the green-flag run progressed. When Jeff Gordon passed Ryan Newman for fourth on Lap 174, Hendrick Motorsports had three of the top four cars in the running order.
Matt Kenseth dropped back drastically during the run, and his team prepared to change a right front shock absorber, but Gordon became the first major casualty of the Chase on Lap 188, when the throttle of the No. 24 Chevrolet stuck as he entered Turn 1 and the car slammed the outside wall.
“I just let off the throttle, and it just didn’t come all the way back,” Gordon said as his crew tried to repair the car. “It was probably about half-throttle, which is still enough to do a lot of damage. We’re looking at what the issue is right now, what could have caused it.
“We’ll get back out, but in this deal you can’t afford to have issues like that.”
Gordon, the last driver in the Chase as the second wild card, finished 35th and, in all likelihood, fell out of the championship conversation.
Kenseth salvaged an 18th-place finish but fell to 11th in the standings, 26 points behind Keselowski and 21 ahead of Gordon in 12th. Defending champion Tony Stewart ran sixth and sits third in points, seven ahead of Denny Hamlin (16th Sunday after running out of fuel in the closing laps), Kahne and Clint Bowyer (10th Sunday).