[media-credit name=”Noel Lanier” align=”alignright” width=”235″][/media-credit]In the opening salvo of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, here is what was surprising and not surprising in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Surprising: The following words from his Chase video promo proved prophetic for the driver who likened his victory to a win in the opening round of a heavyweight fight for the championship.
“I didn’t start out wanting to be a race car driver,” Brad Keselowski said in the video. “I started out wanting to be a championship race car driver.”
Also, just as he predicted in his Chase video, the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for Penske Racing had to battle a championship veteran, none other than five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, for the race win.
“Of course at every stop up the ranks there was some veteran that wanted to test me,” Keselowski continued in the video. “Someone I had to prove myself to.”
“These days, well, not much has changed. I’m Brad Keselowski and this is my Chase.”
Yes, at least so far in the championship battle, it most certainly is Keselowski’s Chase. With his win, Keselowski now leads the point standings for the first time in his career.
Not Surprising: With the Chase competition in full gear, it was not surprising that a bit of controversy played into the race finish.
Runner up Jimmie Johnson, who has never won at Chicagoland, expressed concerns about Keselowski of blending prematurely, crossing the line a little bit too early after making his final pit stop in his opinion.
“He did cut up early,” Johnson said. “It did impede my progress.”
“But it didn’t affect the outcome, I don’t believe, “Johnson continued. “The way he made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I’m not sure I would have held him off.”
Although NASCAR reviewed the situation, the sanctioning body ruled that there was no foul. Johnson finished second, his ninth top-10 finish in 11 races at Chicagoland and his 18th top-10 finish in 2012.
Johnson was also the lap leader of the race, leading a whopping 172 laps of the Geico 400. He kept Chase leader Keselowski in his sights, however, and is now just three points back.
Surprising: Both Roush Fenway drivers in the Chase had surprisingly bad days. Matt Kenseth, behind the wheel of the No. 17 Best Buy Ford, had the shock of his life and Greg Biffle, in the No. 16 3M Ford was shocked by how bad his final pit stop was.
“A shock fell off, I guess,” Kenseth said. “I guess it didn’t get tight.”
“We had a brake line get loose at Bristol and a shock fall off in this race, so obviously we have to get to the bottom of that.”
“We were really good there at the end and we did our last stop and the car just went bad,” Biffle said. “It never fails, the last stop of the day we put our tires on and it went bad.”
Kenseth finished 18th and fell three positions to 11th in the Chase standings, 26 back of the leader. Biffle finished a bit better in 13th but lost three positions to 8th in the Chase standings and is now 19 points behind the leader.
Not Surprising: The grunt of pain when this driver hit the wall hard said it all for his race, as well as being symbolic for much of his 2012 season.
Even bringing back his old school mustache could not help Jeff Gordon as his throttle stuck, hurtling him into the safer barrier and relegating him to a 35th place finish. Gordon did not budge from the 12th position, however, is now a daunting 47 points away from the Chase points leader.
“We were having a good day,” Gordon said. “We had a top-5 car and who knows what we could have done.”
“We had a throttle stick,” Gordon said. “I left off and it didn’t come all the way back.
“In this deal, you can’t afford issues like that.”
Surprising: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a surprising destination in mind as his goal for the rest of the Chase, especially having to start from the rear due to an engine issue and finishing eighth.
“I was disappointed in myself for making that mistake with the engine and getting us that far back at the start of the race,” the driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/7-Eleven/National Guard Chevrolet said. “We really couldn’t overcome the track position.”
“We need to be in the media center after all these races as much as possible,” Junior said, noting his new destination goal. “Eighth is all right, but I know Brad is going to run well and Jimmie is obviously going to be tough.”
“You can’t run eighth every week and win the championship.”
Junior maintained his seventh position in the Chase standings and is 17 points back from leader Keselowski.
Not Surprising: Earnhardt Junior’s teammate Kasey Kahne was the Chase’s official biggest mover, gaining six positions to fifth in the standings with his third place finish.
“The Farmers Insurance Chevrolet was good all day,” Kahne said. “The pit stops were awesome and I felt good about it.”
While Kahne was happy about his finish, he also expressed some concerns about what he and his crew chief Kenny Francis will face in the next mile and a half track on the schedule.
“We made a lot of adjustments and Kenny did a nice job, but we just couldn’t figure anything out to make the car better,” Kahne said. “So, I just feel like I was lacking today and hopefully we can talk about it this week and get it better for some of these other 1.5 mile tracks.”
Surprising: Michael Waltrip Racing, after blazing into the Chase with its two primary drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex, Jr., were surprising non-factors for the win in the first race of the championship ten.
Truex, Jr., driving the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, finished ninth and Bowyer, piloting the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota, finished right behind him in tenth. They are sixth and ninth respectively in the point standings after the Chicagoland race.
“It just wasn’t a good day,” Bowyer said simply. “I don’t know whether it was strategy or pit stops or what, but it seemed like we lost spots on pit road all day and it just cost us.”
“You ain’t going to win a championship with decent days.”
“We were horrible at the start,” Truex Jr. said. “We made lots and lots and lots and lots of changes – big changes and it just worked at the end.”
“It wasn’t the way we wanted to start the Chase.”
Not Surprising: The driver that lost his spot in the twelve eligible to run for the Chase at Richmond could only wonder what could have been, especially after having a top-5 run at Chicagoland.
“The day started off really good,” Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Doublemint Toyota, said. “We were following Jeff Gordon up to the front.”
“We had a strong Doublemint Camry,” Busch continued. “Just didn’t quite have enough for the top-three today, but we got a fourth-place effort out of it.”
Surprising: In an unusual move, NASCAR actually reversed a penalty, however, it was still a very big setback for one young driver.
Aric Almirola, in his No. 43 Farmland Ford Fusion, who was penalized by NASCAR for a loose tire, was later told by NASCAR that the call was a mistake, giving him his pass through penalty lap back. Almirola, who was having a good run, just could not recover and finished 17th.
“That was very bizarre,” Almirola said. “To be running fourth and get a pass through penalty and lose a lap and then have them tell you that they are sorry and give you your lap back, but you are on the tail end of the lead lap so you go from running fourth to 23rd or 24th, that was pretty pathetic.”
“They fixed it and gave us our lap back, but it was disappointing.”
Not Surprising: Denny Hamlin, after running out of fuel to finish 16th in his No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota, made the challenge of the post race.
“This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,” Hamlin said. “It’s tough but we’re strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily.”
In fact, Hamlin expressed such confidence heading into the second Chase race at Loudon that he posted the following tweet @dennyhamlin.
“This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”