Brad Keselowski, left, celebrates with team owner Roger Penske, right,… (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images )
When Dodge announced last month it was leaving NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series after 2012, the automaker was careful to say it would still help its sole Cup team, Penske Racing, try to win a title this year.
Dodge might just get that done.
Penske's Brad Keselowski has the early lead in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup championship playoff after winning the Chase opener last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
And although Keselowski, 28, is only in his third full year in the Cup series, few discount his ability to keep pace with his more experienced Chase rivals, including five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and reigning titleholder Tony Stewart.
Keselowski's win at Chicagoland, his fourth victory of the season, gave him a three-point edge over Johnson heading into Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Keselowski, who has six prior Cup starts at New Hampshire, "definitely has the experience it takes and he will be tough this weekend," said Greg Biffle, who is eighth in the Chase after finishing 13th at Chicagoland.
"Once you've been to a place four or five times, or six times . . . you pretty much know everything there is to know about that place," Biffle told reporters Tuesday.
Stewart is third in the Chase standings, eight points behind Keselowski. Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer are tied for fourth, 15 points behind. A driver can earn up to 48 points in each race.
Keselowski has yet to win on the one-mile New Hampshire oval, but most of the other 11 Chase drivers are previous winners there.
Johnson, Stewart and four-time champion Jeff Gordon have won three times and Clint Bowyer is a two-time winner at the Loudon, N.H., track.
Biffle has one win at New Hampshire in 20 prior starts. Gordon has 35 starts there, Johnson has 21, Stewart 27 and Hamlin 13.
Keselowski said that while he welcomed the early Chase lead, "I refuse to let it sink in because there is so much work left. It would be a disservice to Sunday's win if we allow our focus to get away from tomorrow's workload."
Gordon's Chase began poorly when the throttle stuck on his No. 24 Chevrolet at Chicagoland, sending him into the wall and leaving him with a 35th-place finish. So he's already last in the Chase, 47 points behind Keselowski.
But "It's way too early to panic," said Gordon's crew chief, Alan Gustafson. "We still have nine races to go, so we won't change our strategy."
Indeed, Biffle said he expects a close Chase down to the wire.
"People are going to be climbing back into this game" even if they have a bad race, Biffle said. "There probably will be more guys in it for a longer period of time in this Chase."
NASCAR on Tuesday reinstated driver A.J. Allmendinger, who was suspended July 24 for failing a drug test. Allmendinger also lost his ride in Penske Racing's No. 22 Dodge in the Sprint Cup Series. The sanctioning body said Allmendinger, a Los Gatos, Calif., native, was reinstated because he completed its substance-abuse "road to recovery" program.
Ryan Pemberton will be Danica Patrick's crew chief this Saturday in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway, as many expected. But her team, JR Motosports, called Pemberton an interim crew chief and said the choice of a crew chief "beyond this weekend has not been determined." Pemberton is stepping in because Tony Eury Jr., who had been crew chief on Patrick's No. 7 Chevrolet, parted ways with the team this week. Eury also is the cousin of team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.