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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)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, races Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, races to victory Sunday, May 3, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. With him are Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS who finished second, and Paul Menard, driver of the #27 Quaker State/Menards Chevrolet SS who finished in third place. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, waves to fans after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, picks up the victory flag Sunday, May 3, 2015 after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. This was Earnhardt, Jr.`s sixth victory at Talladega. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, and his crew chief, Greg Ives, celebrate in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 3, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, is congratulated by Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS Sunday, May 3, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. This was Earnhardt, Jr.`s sixth victory at Talladega. Johnson finished second behind Earnhardt, Jr. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, celebrates his victory Sunday, May 3, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. This was Earnhardt, Jr.`s sixth victory at Talladega. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Discount Tire Ford, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR XFINITY Series Winn Dixie 300 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Ty Dillon, driver of the #3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, and Darrell Wallace Jr., driver of the #6 Sponge Bob Square Pants Ford, wreck during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Winn Dixie 300 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, watches crew members work on his car after an incident during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Winn Dixie 300 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, qualifies for fourth position Saturday, May 2, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. Earnhardt, Jr. is eighth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet SS, qualifies for second position Saturday, May 2, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. Kahne is sixth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Hendrick Motorsports teammate and Pole winner Jeff Gordon, driver of the #5 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS will join him on the front row Sunday. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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