The No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge of Brad Keselowski pulled away from the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of the Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., on Sunday afternoon, giving Keselowski his fourth win of the 2012 season and the championship points lead following the first race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"It feels like the first round of a heavyweight title bout," Keselowski said.
Johnson finished second after dominating much of the race. As a result, he left Chicagoland second in points, three points behind Keselowski.
"To come out of here second is a great day," Johnson said.
Kasey Kahne finished third in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and moved from the bottom of the points standings to fifth.
Johnson started on the pole and led most of the laps until Keselowski beat him off pit road with a two-tire pit stop during a caution that came out around lap 100 of the 267-lap race. Keselowski had taken four while most of the other lead lap cars took only two tires during a previous caution on lap 67.
Keselowski was able to stay out from until the next caution came out on lap 149. Johnson got off pit road first during that caution to retake the lead. Johnson and Keselowski ran first and second for much of the remainder of the race.
"The last, maybe three runs, he (Keselowski) was definitely a factor," Johnson said.
The two drivers swapped the lead during a cycle of green-flag pit stops with about 40 laps to go when Keselowski was able to get by Johnson for the top spot right after getting back out on the race track.
"We knew we needed a little speed to run with the 48," Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said. "It was a great day on pit road."
From there, Keselowski pulled away. Johnson did seem to gain time on the No. 2 every few laps, but then Keselowski would just pull away again.
"I don't know of the No. 48 slowed down or we sped up on that last run," Keselowski said.
Not every Chaser had positive days comparable to those of Keselowski, Johnson and Kahne. Matt Kenseth lost a shock from under his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, and after several pit stops for repairs finished 17th and fell to 11th in the points standings. The only Chase driver lower in points is Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Gordon ran in the top-five for much of the race before his throttle stuck, sending him hard into the wall on lap 188.
The day was somewhat better for Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Hamlin headed into Chicagoland with the points lead, but he ran out of gas on the final lap of the race while running in the ninth position. He wound up 16th and dropped to fourth in points.
"We didn’t' get the car full (on the last stop)," Hamlin said. "They told me I was four laps short, and that put me in a box."
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was the highest non-Chase driver, finishing fourth. Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five in the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
Finishing sixth through 10th were Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, Joey Logano in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after starting the race from the rear because of an engine change, Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota and Clint Bowyer in the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.
With the first race of the Chase in the history books, Stewart, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, is third in points, eight behind leader Keselowski. Hamlin is fourth, Kahne fifth, Bowyer sixth and Earnhardt seventh.
Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent