Brad Keselowski Wins Chase Opener, Takes Point Lead.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES (NSCS)
Round 1 of the 2012 Chase to the Sprint Cup is in the books and for the first time in the nine-year history of the NASCAR-style playoff, a Dodge driver is the Chase point leader. Brad Keselowski claimed Round 1 of the 10-round Chase, winning Sunday's GIECO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
What was expected to be a wide-open battle between the 12-driver Chase field turned out to be a two-car heavyweight slugfest between Jimmy Johnson, the five-time NASCAR champion, and Dodge's Keselowski. They led 248 of the 267 laps and were clearly the class of the field. Johnson dominated early, leading five times for 172 laps in the No. 48 while Keselowski was in command four times for 76 laps. Kasey Kahne finished third.
Keselowski was dealt a winning hand by his pit crew during the final round of green-flag pit stops for the leaders as the final 73 laps were caution free. The No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge crew completed a four-tire and fuel stop in 12.9 seconds on Lap 232. Re-entering the 1.5-mile track, Keselowski blended in line just off Turn 2 right in front of Johnson. Once the green-flag pit cycle was complete nine laps later, Keselowski was the leader and in control. He led the final 26 laps and finished 3.171 seconds ahead of Johnson in the 400-mile event.
"We're in victory lane, Race 1 of the Chase," Keselowski said. "It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout. It's good to win it. It feels great. We might have won the round, but we didn't by any means knock 'em out. There's nine rounds left.
"To have this kind of speed just gives you so much confidence. This is one of the first weeks over the last few months where I've felt we've had the same speed as the 48. I've said all along if we could just get the same speed, we could execute at a very high level and we'd be one of the teams to beat. That was the case today. There's still nine rounds left. This one feels good. We're going to enjoy it but we're going to go to work and keep working."
Keselowski now leads the Chase standings by three markers over Johnson. It's the first time he has led the Sprint Cup point standings in his career. The win was his fourth of the year and eighth of his career in 116 Cup races.
Johnson earned the pole during Saturday qualifying with the Blue Deuce starting six rows back in 13th. Once the green flag dropped, it was clear that the Paul Wolfe-tuned Dodge Charger would be a factor as he quickly moved to the front.
"Through the summer months we had some great races, some great finishes, but we knew we needed a little more speed to be able to run with the 48," said Wolfe. "It says a lot about all the guys back at the shop; they continued to work hard and push forward. We were able to see the results today. We had a little hiccup on pit road early but the guys rebounded and the stop that counted, they were on. Everybody on this Miller Lite Dodge team should be proud of what we've done."
The five-time champion was among those applauding the effort by Keselowski and the Blue Deuce team. "That last one, he was just faster," said Johnson. "Congratulations to those guys; they did an awesome job."
Despite being the single Dodge entry in the 12-car Chase field, Keselowski and the Penske Racing team backed-up the recent statistics showing the No. 2 Dodge team has peaked at the right time and established itself a serious contender for the title. He has posted seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in his last 11 starts.
"What a way to start the Chase," said Penske Racing director of competition Travis Geisler. "I'm so proud of this entire organization. Everyone back at the shop that has worked so hard to help this 2 team played a role in this win. It's a team win and a hell of a race.
"Everyone has been questioning how much Dodge is supporting us throughout this Chase. I can't tell you how much they've stuck with us through all this. It would be a proud moment for us to put a Dodge in victory lane at Homestead and win this championship."
Team owner Roger Penske echoed the same sentiments. "Well, there's no question that Dodge has been a great asset to us," he said. I think the one thing we both have done, we've clasped our hands and said we're going to go for it and do our very best, because they've been a great partner. I think the cooperation technically that they've had with our chassis guys, our engine people and aerodynamic people has been terrific. We might be backing out of their garage, but I certainly want to leave them with the best results we can."
Teammate Sam Hornish Jr. earned another top-12 finish in a strong performance that was overshadowed by his teammates win. Hornish showed early speed in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger before a self-inflicted speeding penalty entering pit road dropped the Penske racer 19 positions to 31st and a lap down.
Hornish returned to the lead lap after the race's first caution on Lap 67 and was running 21st by Lap 125. Mired in traffic and running 16th, Hornish would benefit from a caution while the lead-pack cars were pitting to catapult all the way to seventh.
"Another solid day for the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge," Hornish said. "We had a fast racecar all day. I messed up coming to pit road early in the race and got caught speeding which set us back a bit. We hung in there and battled. We caught a break when the caution came out and we hadn't pitted yet. We gained a bunch of spots back and got on the lead lap. I thought before the race that we had a top-five car and race day was no different."
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES (NCWTS)
Ryan Blaney took the lead from Johnny Sauter with 50 laps to go and never looked back, scoring his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) victory Saturday night in the American Ethanol 200 at Iowa Speedway. He's the seventh first-time winner in the series this season.
It was the first victory for RAM since Dennis Setzer won at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2008.
The 18-year old son of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Dave Blaney survived four restarts in the final 35 laps to win the race in the No. 29 Cooper Standard RAM and become the youngest winner in NCWTS history. He edged Ty Dillon in the final three-lap dash to the finish in the 200-lap event.
The race turned in Blaney's favor when crew chief Doug Randolph made the decision to pit for four tires during the fifth caution of the race on lap 97 while others on the lead lap, including pole winner Parker Kligerman, opted to stay out for track position. Blaney restarted 14th when the race went green on lap 105. He immediately started moving forward. By lap 111, he had climbed back into the top five.
Kligerman and others who stayed out during the fifth yellow began to make pit stops at lap 140. On lap 151, Blaney took the lead from Johnny Sauter and promptly built up a sizeable advantage as the green-flag pit cycle continued. He was leading second-place Jeff Choquette by 20 seconds when the sixth caution waved on lap 165 for debris. One lap later, Blaney made his final stop for tires and fuel and returned to the track as the race leader.
Blaney held onto the top spot despite the rash of cautions late in the race and four pressure-packed restarts for the race leader.
"We were good all weekend," Blaney said. "We were not as good as the 7 truck (Kligerman) leading up to the race but we could hang with the 7 truck in the race. He was a little bit better than us on long runs but it seemed like on restarts, we were better than him for five to seven laps. At the end on restarts, it kind of played to our advantage. I knew if we were just side-by-side with the second-place guy getting into (Turn) one, we were probably going to beat 'em off of two. It was good to have Cooper Standard on board and win here in Iowa where half my family is. It was a good night. Hopefully, we can have some more."
Blaney won in just his third-career start in the series and his first at the .875-mile speedway. The victory gave owner Brad Keselowski his first series victory.
"It's definitely really special," Blaney said. "Getting the first win for Brad Keselowski Racing, that's great. This team really means a lot to him and for me to do that for him really means a lot."
The victory was also special for Randolph, who served as Dave Blaney's crew chief in the Sprint Cup Series in the early 2000s.
"Man, it was just a pleasure to watch him drive tonight," Randolph said. "He was on it. The Cooper Standard RAM was solid all night. The guys on pit road did a great job. I feel great for Ryan and his family. My first crew chiefing gig was with his dad, so I feel really close to the family. It's exciting to see this."
His father was there to see the whole thing. "Like Doug said, he did a tremendous job all night in traffic, ran really hard when he needed to and not so much when he didn't," said Dave Blaney. "He just did it all right. You know Doug made a really good call on tires there midway through the race. It ended up being the perfect call and got him in position and he brought it home.
"My wife is from within an hour of here and her whole family is close. A lot of them were here tonight. That's a very cool thing. I'm just glad I was here to see it. You know, I got to see his first K&N win at Phoenix last fall and this one. He does a really nice job and he's coming along so quickly. It's just cool to be a part of it. You know, I can't thank Brad Keselowski and everybody at Penske enough for having the faith in him to go ahead and run him in all this stuff and look at his future. Brad's been instrumental in bringing Ryan along and helping him get through the learning process."
David Mayhew made his first NCWTS start of the season at Iowa in the second entry from Brad Keselowski Racing. Mayhew said he was hampered by a truck that simply wouldn't turn well enough in the corners, regardless of the adjustments the crew made. He was credited with a 16th-place finish in the final rundown in the No. 19 MMI Wireless Services RAM.
"We worked on it a lot," Mayhew said. "We'd get one part of the corner better and the next time we'd get a different part of the corner better but right in the center, the thing would just not turn. I mean, all night, it was just tight no matter what we did. We could free it up getting in and free it up getting off but never right in the center. You live and learn and go on to Kentucky next weekend."
Kligerman won the pole and led for 107 of the 200 laps but a spin with 21 laps remaining cut down two tires. He finished 23rd.
Blaney averaged 88.285 mph in the race. There were nine cautions for 54 laps and seven lead changes among six drivers. Dillon leads the series championship standings by eight points over second-place Timothy Peters.
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES (NNS)
Dodge drivers Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. posted top-10 finishes in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series at Chicagoland Speedway. Keselowski finished fourth in the No. 22 Discount Tire Dodge Challenger while Hornish was sixth in the No. 12 Avis Dodge Challenger.
Keselowski picked up his 11th top-five finish of the season. He started 16th but quickly worked his way into the top 10 and was running fifth by lap 44. A slow pit stop during the race's third caution on Lap 48 dropped the No. 22 to 11th. Keselowski quickly worked his way back into the top 10 but it wasn't until the final 29-lap, green-flag sprint to the finish that he gained five spots to finish fourth.
"We fought hard all day long," Keselowski said. "Didn't have quite what we needed but didn't give up on it. We made some adjustments on the car, fought all day long and was able to bring home a fourth-place finish. We just didn't have the perfect car today to run with Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) and Austin (Dillon). We didn't give up on it all day and a fourth-place was all that we could get today."
Hornish picked up his 18th top-10 finish of the season. After qualifying fourth, he was a fixture inside of the top 10 all race including one short stint at the front early in the race.
"We were good at times and not so good at other times," said Hornish. "We just weren't able to run with the top two or three guys. The short runs hurt us especially on that last restart when we were second and just couldn't hold onto the track position. The 18 and 6 really took off and there was no catching them. It was a solid day for the Avis Dodge Challenger. We had another good point's day but we need some wins.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his fifth win of the season, edging Kyle Busch by 2.402-seconds, to take a nine-point lead over Elliott Sadler in the season point standings. Austin Dillon, Keselowski and Paul Menard rounded out the top-five.