JOLIET, Ill. — With a daring drive through the middle, Brad Keselowski showed how badly he wants to win another championship.
Keselowski used a three-wide pass of Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday to win the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The victory automatically advances Keselowski into the second round of the 10-race Chase, which will eliminate four drivers every third race under NASCAR’s new format.
As his Team Penske team celebrated in Victory Lane, Keselowski moved his name on a bracket-type Chase grid into the next round.
“Man, the next two weeks are going to be a lot of fun, knowing we don’t have to worry too much and we are going to move up,” said Keselowski, who opened the Chase as the top seed.
As Larson and Harvick staged a hold-your-breath, side-by-side race for the lead following a restart with 19 laps remaining, Keselowski charged through the middle to grab control of the race. He easily pulled away from the field while Harvick and Larson had their hands full trying to hold off Jeff Gordon.
“I saw Kyle and Kevin racing each other really hard, they were aggressively side drafting and I was waiting for an opportunity to strike and it came,” Keselowski said. “The car stuck and everything came together.”
Contact between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. set up one final restart with six laps to go, but Keselowski had no trouble as he surged to the front for his second consecutive victory and Sprint Cup Series-leading fifth of the year.
With Keselowski in control, the race was for second place between Gordon, Larson and Harvick. Gordon, trying this year to win his fifth NASCAR championship, wound up second and Larson, the rookie who flirted with Chase contention, was third.
Joey Logano, Keselowski’s Penske teammate, was fourth and Harvick faded to fifth.
Chase-eligible drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch took the next three spots, while Larson teammate Jamie McMurray was ninth.
Matt Kenseth finished 10th as all three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers finished inside the top 10.
The next three spots went to Hendrick Motorsports as Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., six-time and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne finished 11th through 13th.
Ryan Newman battled back from three laps down to finish 15th, but the rest of the Chase field didn’t fare as well. Carl Edwards wound up 20th after a tire problem, AJ Allmendinger (22nd) and Greg Biffle (23rd) weren’t competitive, and Aric Almirola finished 41st after an engine failure.
It was a devastating blow for Almirola, an underdog in the Chase who ran as high as fourth in the race. He was sixth and headed for a routine pit stop when his engine suddenly failed. He was greeted with a hug from Hall of Famer Richard Petty, his car owner, in the garage.
“Heartbroken, I think, is the easiest way to describe it,” Almirola said. “We know we are capable of running in the top 10. Everyone else might not think so, the rest of the world thinks we are underdogs, and we will gladly accept that tag. We don’t have anything to hang our heads about.”
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