Brad Keselowski left Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday saying his victory in the first race in the Chase for the Championship was like a fighter winning a single round in a title fight – and there are nine rounds to go.
While Keselowski got the win after beating Jimmie Johnson off pit road at the final pit stop, Johnson left a lasting impression. He won the pole, led a race-best 172 of 267 laps and finished second.
While Keselowski got a lot of attention in Victory Lane, Johnson continued to get most of the attention in the garage area.
“They seem to be able to find another gear when it comes to the Chase when it all truly is really on the line,” Jeff Gordon said.
Keselowski’s victory did nothing to shake Las Vegas’ opinion of Johnson. He started as a 9-to-2 favorite before the playoffs and now is listed as the 5-to-2 favorite to win it all.
Keselowski improved from 14-to-1 to 9-to-1.
“I know that watching the (No.) 48 win quite often does have an effect over time, a psychological advantage,” Keselowski said of Johnson’s Chevrolet.
Johnson seems more concerned with his race team than thinking about anything, or anyone, else. It’s the same mindset he used to win five consecutive championships, starting in 2006.
“In the past when I have done that and we’ve left the track satisfied with our performance good things have happened,” he said. “That’s the mindset and the road I’m heading down right now.”
“You got to recognize where your strengths are,” Gordon said. “(Johnson) has so many strengths, it just seems they got a bag of tricks that they can constantly take things out of, weapons they can go after. They’re either fast at this particular track or they just know how to battle back. Doesn’t matter where they start, they’re always capable of pulling out the weapons that they need to.”
While Keselowski has shown a lot of speed this year, there are tracks ahead that have presented some challenges. He is winless at seven of the remaining nine tracks in the playoffs; Johnson has won at eight of the nine.
Overall, Johnson has a 32-3 edge against Keselowski in career wins at the nine remaining tracks.
“I think Jimmie is the favorite again, like always,” Kasey Kahne said. “He’s really tough. Those guys seem to hit their prime about this time of the year.”
But Keselowski isn’t going to back down.
“I approached it as though I were a baseball player … at the plate, and you know there’s a 100-mph fastball coming at you all the time, there’s always somebody trying to beat you,” he said.
“But if I go down, I’m going down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time. I’m not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out.”
The next challenge is Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Johnson has three wins at New Hampshire, while Keselowski’s best finish was second place a year ago.
“My philosophy is just to stay in the hunt,” Johnson said. “Let’s get midway through this Chase and see who’s where and what to do.
“Brad definitely was loose coming into the race (at Chicagoland), and he should be. He should be confident on these bigger tracks. He’s been very strong on them over the last four or five months, and they did a good job.
“We’ll see what happens on a short track. Then you’ve got Dover and Martinsville, which really shake things up.”