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Keselowski too strong for Johnson at Chicago

Brad Keselowski established himself as a serious contender for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, taking first blood in the Chase with a win at Chicagoland Speedway.
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.




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Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet and Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Farmland Ford, lead the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 16, 2012 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, heads across the star/finish line to take the chequered flag and win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 16, 2012 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, celebrates with his crew in victory lane after he won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 16, 2012 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, July 27, 2014 the Brickyard 400 Nascar Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gordon, who leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings, has won at the Brickyard a record 5 times, the first one in 1994. (Photo by Christa L. Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, July 27, 2014 the Brickyard 400 Nascar Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gordon, who leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings, has won at the Brickyard a record 5 times, the first one in 1994. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates his win Sunday, July 27, 2014 of the Brickyard 400 Nascar Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gordon, who leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings, has won at the Brickyard a record 5 times, the first one in 1994. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, kisses the Brick after his win Sunday, July 27, 2014 of the Brickyard 400 Nascar Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gordon, who leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings, has won at the Brickyard a record 5 times, the first one in 1994. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
The #24 Axalta Chevrolet crew celebrates in pit lane after driver Jeff Godron`s victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates by kissing the bricks after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, salutes the fans after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, center, celebrates with team owner Rick Hendrick, left, daughter Ella Sophia and wife Ingrid Vandebosch by kissing the bricks after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars into the pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, races the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Time Warner Cable Chevrolet, leads during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, lead the field to the green flag for the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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