NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the Sprint Cup… (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images )
Brad Keselowski is NASCAR's new man to beat.
The 28-year-old third-generation driver seized the Chase for the Sprint Cup series lead with a late surge and a 3.1-second victory over favorite Jimmie Johnson in Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
Whether it lasts is another matter. Nine races remain in the circuit's championship series.
"It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout," said Keselowski, whose father, grandfather and uncle also raced. "We might have won a round, but we didn't knock them out. We have a lot of racing to go."
But for now it sure feels great to be atop NASCAR's world.
"It's my goal to be a Sprint Cup champion, to be a winner," Keselowski said after wrapping up his 116th series start. "Racing is one of the few things I've ever done in my life that has [taken] me to another level mentally and physically, and demands that out of you to be successful."
Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion, led most of the race but slipped behind Keselowski after a final pit stop with about 35 laps left. And Keselowski kept him from catching up and eventually lengthened the lead.
Keselowski was in first for 76 laps, including the final 26.
Sunday's race drew 65,000 fans for the 267-lap, 400-mile race — Chicagoland Speedway's second staging of a Chase race. Last year's inaugural was rained out and ran the following day.
This time, weather was near-perfect with sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s.
Keselowski claimed his eighth career Sprint Cup Series race, fourth of the season and first on Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5-mile oval.
He also now holds a first-time lead in Chase point standings, three ahead of Johnson. Defending Chicagoland and 2011 Chase champion Tony Stewart was third after a sixth-place finish.
"I wasn't sure what to expect," said Roger Penske, who owns Keselowski's Miller Lite Dodge. "Brad said he had a good car and we qualified better than we had in several weeks. We got a new car for this week, [Keselowski] certainly is focused and brought a lot to the team, and Paul Wolfe has certainly been a good crew chief."
Johnson, denied his first Chicagoland Sprint Cup Series win, led 172 laps and matched second-place finishes in 2004 and 2008.
Kasey Kahne was third while Denny Hamlin, the points leader entering the race, ran out of gas in the final lap and slipped from 11th to 16th.
Johnson said he felt Keselowski impeded his departure from pit row with about 35 laps left.
"But it didn't affect the outcome, I don't believe," Johnson said. "The way [Keselowski] made quick work of traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off."
So Johnson opted to look at the big picture.
"We had a very, very solid day," he said. "Of course we would have loved to win the race, but we'll take second ... The first race is really an opportunity to separate the field, and you hope that happens if you have a good run.
"My philosophy is to stay in the hunt. Let's get midway through this Chase and see who's where and what to do."
The series resumes Sept. 23 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway's one-mile oval. The series concludes Nov. 18 at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway.