Brad Keselowski’s breathtaking late pass and powerful car on the short run down the stretch decided Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com at Chicagoland Speedway, the opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
What that means is Kesolowski automatically qualifies for the Contender Round of the new NASCAR playoff format.
Sixteen drivers are in the Chase. After three races in the Challenger Round, the field will be trimmed to 12 for the Contender. After those three races, the top eight will advance to the Eliminator Round. Following those three races, the championship will be decided among the Final Four at Homestead-Miami.
Keselowski’s victory comes as no surprise because he’s darn good, although everyone running up front agreed he probably did not have the best car Sunday. He leads the Sprint Cup Series with five victories this season and entered the Chase as the No. 1 seed.
Chances are, even if he did not win Sunday, he would have qualified for the Contender Round, but we will never know that for sure.
The other Challenger Round races will be at New Hampshire and Delaware. So how does Keselowski approach those races now that they mean absolutely nothing to him?
“I feel conflicted because there are nine weeks to go,” he said. “It’s great that we have a bit of a hall pass for the next two weeks, but we have seven other weeks, and we have to keep resetting.”
Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said the team may be able to plan a more carefree attack.
“From a race strategy standpoint, we can be a little more aggressive and play a different strategy,” he said. “Coming in today, we thought we did not need to win – we needed solid runs. We wanted to win, of course, but if we can’t, it’s about salvaging a good finish.
“The next two weeks, we may roll the dice more and go for a win. But it also will allow us to focus more on the next round and those tracks. We can put more focus on how we can be better at the three races in Round 2. Maybe that helps us a little bit.”
When you review the Chase playoff format, it sets up an exciting finish, which is what NASCAR wants. However, the drivers who win in Weeks 1 and 2 of a given round get that hall pass. That was a concern from the time this system was installed.
Rookie Kyle Larson was the sentimental favorite Sunday, when it appeared for much of the race he would become the first non-Chase driver ever to win the first race in the Chase.
I was pulling for him not because of any dislike for Keselowski or anyone else who was running up front but because of this very situation. You hate to see good drivers in a situation where they can coast if they prefer for a couple weeks because where they finish is of no consequence.
Imagine the improbable. Suppose Keselowski wins the first Contender race at Kansas and the first Eliminator race at Martinsville. He can be in the Final Four at Homestead-Miami after having run six meaningless races in the previous eight weeks. Ugh.
However, after hearing Wolfe’s comments, I have a feeling the competitiveness of Keselowski and Penske Racing team will win out. If their cars stay hot – Keselowski is on a two-race win streak – they will pursue two more victories the next two weeks should the opportunities present themselves.
If there was any different strategy than usual among Keselowski and the other Chase drivers at Chicagoland Speedway, Larson said it did not occur to him.
“Maybe those guys are a little more cautious now, but I didn’t see it,” he said. “I really enjoyed racing them all day.”
Jimmie Johnson, always a threat to win the championship regardless of format, said before the race that he wasn’t sure what the general strategy of the Chase qualifiers would be.
“I don’t know. I think what makes it interesting is there is not a clear strategy unless you have poor finishes in the first and second races and you’re not looking strong on points,” he said. “Then it’s really easy for that third race – you need the Hail Mary to make something happen.
“If you get off to a quick start and you’re solid in points, of course you’re going to take an opportunity to win, but you know you’re covering the bases on points. I think there are multiple strategies that will take place, depending on performance.”
Johnson finished 12th, which also was 10th among Chase qualifiers. He now stands eighth in points. That leaves him in a situation where he needs one of those solid runs next week to get into position to advance to the Contender Round. If he blows an engine or hits the wall next week, he may need that Hail Mary effort the following week.
Sunday’s result probably did not change much from a strategic standpoint for any of the Chase qualifiers, with the possible exception of Keselowski. But whatever their approach, NASCAR is counting on nine more weeks of thrilling races. We’ll see how it plays out.
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.