For much of the GEICO 400 race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday afternoon, Jimmie Johnson was completely in control. The five-time champion led 172 of the 267-lap, 400-mile race at the 1.5-mile oval - but ended up having to watch as Keselowski blended back onto the track in front of him after their final pit stops. The Penske Racing #2 then proceeded to pull away over the remaining laps of the race to claim the chequered flag and first blood in the 2012 Chase.
"It feels like round one of a heavyweight title bout," said Keselowski, who came away from Chicago with the points lead in the NASCAR
Sprint Cup championship for the first time in his career as a result of the win. "It's a ten-round bout. Week one's done [but] we've got a lot of racing left to go."
Three hours earlier, as the cars came round to take the green flag for the first time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was already finding himself going backwards fast. Having qualified in fourth place on the second row of the grid on Saturday afternoon, a mishap following the qualifying session forced the Hendrick team to change out the engine.
"It slipped into third gear," said Earnhardt. "[I] over-revved it just for a split-second and a valve hit a piston in the third cylinder and we can't take any chances," he said, adding: "It didn't destroy anything, but we can't run [that engine] ... The valves and the piston had a little party and they all ended-up with a hangover!"
But even as his team mate Jimmie Johnson led the field away at the start with Earnhardt right at the other end of the line, he wasn't too downcast: "It's a good long race, the car is good enough," he insisted. "Fortunately, this is a racetrack that there are multiple pit strategies, and it's not a really simple straight-forward pit strategy to call. I think there will be a lot of opportunities."
So as the cars got up to speed, everyone settled down to see who was going to use what strategy to win the first race in the 2012 Chase. It was no surprise to see Johnson immediately shoot away at the front, or that his Hendrick team mate Kasey Kahne should also soon dispatch Aric Almirola and pull up into second place, by which time Johnson's lead was nearing the two second mark.
Earnhardt meanwhile was working his way back up through the field and finding some of it tough going, with a notable doorbanging incident with Trevor Bayne into turn 1 on lap 36 that fortunately resulted in no casualties, shortly before the first round of green flag pit stops which was relatively uneventful save for Travis Kvapil snagging his jack as he left his pit stall and dragged it round an entire lap before coming back in again to have the accessory removed.
Johnson and Kahne resumed at the front after the sequence concluded, with Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth just about keeping in touch through to the first caution of the afternoon which was for debris in turn 2 on lap 66, which allowed the leaders to come in for a second time and have some adjustment as a side order to the serving of tyres and fuel. This time the notable double-stopper on pit road was Tony Stewart, who after his initial visit to his pit stall felt a decided vibration suggestion something was wrong with the new tyres, and he preferred to come back in for another changeover rather than risk losing one of the wheels off his wagon under green.
Johnson resumed in the lead although Kasey Kahne gave him an early run for hi money. With Jeff Gordon taking the restart in fifth and Earnhardt now joining his stablemates in the top ten at this point, it was looking like a very satisfactory day at the office for everyone wearing a Hendrick insignia.