17 September 2012
Keselowski too strong for Johnson at Chicago
"He did cut up early. It did impede my progress, I had to check up and wasn't sure where things were going," insisted Johnson. "At the time it messed me up."
The NASCAR officials reviewed the video of the incident - and concluded that Keselowski had done nothing against the rules. No penalty would be forthcoming, so Johnson was left once again staring at the back of the Penske car and this time it had come at a critical moment: if the same situation repeated itself form earlier in the race, Johnson was going to have a real problem getting back around Keselowski for position.
Keselowski wasn't in the lead at this point, as it took until lap 242 before the final cars dived into pit lane and Keselowski was promoted to the top. That wasn't good news for Johnson, as that meant Keselowski also now had the best of the clear air up front, although slow lapped traffic minimised that edge somewhat and meant Keselowski had to stay sharp to avoid getting hung up anywhere.
But 'Special K' wasn't making any mistakes, and was calmly and methodically working the advantage he'd got from the pit exit manoeuvre to start pulling away from Johnson. As the final laps played it it was clear that the #48 had nothing in reserve and could only watch the leader recede further into the distance: by the time the chequered flag came out, Keselowski had a three second edge over Johnson and cruised over the line to take his fourth win of the season and first blood in the 2012 Chase.
By the time he spoke with reporters after the race, Johnson's initial anger over the pit exit blending had subsided, and he was realistic to admit that the better can had won: "I don't think it played an outcome in the race," he admitted. "The way he made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off.
Keselowski didn't see quite what the fuss was about his pit lane exit move. "There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that's not a bad thing," he pointed out. "That's just one more thing to monitor during the race.
"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," he added. "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."
NASCAR had agreed with him - something that you can be sure Johnson, the Hendrick team and indeed everyone else on pit road will note down for future reference and used - and Keselowski was celebrating in victory lane, along with car owner Roger Penske who had flown in from Fontana, California overnight following his organisation's crushing disappointment to narrowly fail to secure the IZOD IndyCar Series championship with Will Power.
"A great weekend is what I'm thinking now," said Penske of how he felt on Sunday afternoon, standing in NASCAR victory lane less than 24 hours after the Fontana let-down. He was particularly happy to have bested Hendrick Motorsports' Johnson and Kahne in such a close on-track fight: "They're the gold standard, and we want to beat them," he said.
But Keselowski was quick to manage expectations and not let everyone get carried away with this early success. "We might have won the round, but we didn't by any means knock 'em out," he warned. "We're feeling good about today, but [we] know that we have a lot of work to do."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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