- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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JOLIET, Ill. -- Brad Keselowski playfully grabbed at people on golf carts as his cart swerved in and out of traffic entering Chicagoland Speedway more than two hours before Sunday's Chase opener.
The Penske Racing driver joked about minor issues Jimmie Johnson's car had in prerace inspection shortly after driver introductions.
He asked if it was "Miller Time" with five laps to go.
No driver was looser entering or during the race.
No driver was looser leaving it.
Keselowski established himself as a legitimate threat to win his first Sprint Cup championship, beating five-time champion Johnson by more than three seconds for his first Chase victory.
The 28-year-old driver proved he is ready to go toe-to-toe with one of the best drivers the sport has witnessed, perhaps ready to start his own run toward immortality.
And not once did he appear nervous about it.
"It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout," Keselowski said after his fourth win of the season gave him the points lead for the first time in his career. "It's a 10-round bout. Week 1 is done. We might have won the round, but we didn't knock them out."
Keselowski is a heavyweight in a race car. We shouldn't be surprised by the way he stood up to Johnson, who sat on the pole and led the most laps (172). He's been standing up to the No. 48 team -- all the Hendrick Motorsports teams -- since Indianapolis, when he said they had a competitive advantage with their rear-end suspensions.
He basically carried the torch for the rest of the garage when he said last month at Michigan that the HMS cars had "tricks" that allowed them to go faster.
"The 48 car has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned, but it's my job not to roll over and give it to them," Keselowski said that day. "We're going to keep 'em honest through this Chase."
Two weeks later, NASCAR issued a bulletin that gave teams limitations on how far they could go with the rear suspension.
On Sunday, Keselowski took it to Johnson.
Nobody was happier than team owner Roger Penske, still stinging from Will Power losing the IndyCar championship by three points on Saturday night.
"We've been wanting to race the 48 for as many years as I think I've been in this sport," Penske said. "To be able to race side by side within two or three seconds for almost 100 laps and come out on top is a real credit to his driving skills."
It's a real credit to Keselowski's ability to not only handle pressure, but thrive in the face of it.
Again, we shouldn't be surprised. Keselowski stood up to veterans Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin when they attacked his aggressive driving entering Cup just as confidently as he's tried to keep the heat on Johnson and the Hendrick organization.
"They're the benchmark," Penske said of Johnson and HMS. "That's the gold standard we have to try to compete against. Brad's comments [about the suspension], a lot of them were kidding, but it creates a little bit of noise."
"This group likes noise? Are you sure?" Keselowski interjected as he sat down beside his boss.
No, Penske doesn't particularly like noise, or at least the kind we're talking about. He's one of the most humble, respected men in the sport. Personality-wise, he's like a babbling brook in the woods while Keselowski is Niagara Falls.
But Penske feels the energy Keselowski brings to the table, not only for the No. 2 team but the entire organization. He sees the way this kid from Michigan keeps everybody loose.
"We had a lunch [at the shop] this past Monday," Penske said. "He revved them up."
But behind Keselowski's bravado there is talent. Tons of it.
And if anybody has what it takes to stand up to Johnson's team, it's him.
"Brad definitely was loose coming into the race, and he should be," Johnson said. "He should be confident on these bigger tracks. He's been very strong on them over the last four or five months."
Keselowski has been strong on tracks of all sizes and shapes. This year alone he's won on a half-mile track, a restrictor-plate track and a 1.5-mile track, and finished second on a road course.
He is one of the most well-rounded drivers in the garage, another reason he should be considered a strong threat to win the title.
He's also one of the most hands-on drivers, from spending time with crewmen at the shop to recommending to Penske that he hire Joey Logano to drive the No. 22 next season.
"He won't let me sleep," Penske said.
But Keselowski is smart enough to know this success isn't all about him. He wouldn't have won this day were it not for a final, 12.9-second pit stop that allowed him to get out just ahead of Johnson, who had almost a one-second lead before the stop.
Johnson complained that Keselowski came up the track illegally, impeding his progress and causing him to check up. NASCAR disagreed, and in the end Johnson admitted, "I don't think it played an outcome in the race."
In the end, Johnson wasn't able to finish the job as we've seen for so many years. In the end, Keselowski was able increase his advantage, making Penske appreciate more his decision to come to Chicago after a frustrating night in California.
"I wasn't sure what to expect when I came here," Penske said. "But Brad said he had a good car."
This Chase is far from over, though. The difference between Keselowski and 11th-place Matt Kenseth is only 26 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s eighth-place finish was almost like a win after starting in the back due to a late engine change.
Only Jeff Gordon, 47 points out after his throttle stuck and caused him to wreck on Lap 187, appears out of it.
And as we saw last week at Richmond, where Gordon went from 26th place and a lap down to finish second to make the Chase, you can't count him out.
But there's something about the looseness Keselowski demonstrated before and during Sunday's race that makes you believe he'll be at least hanging around at the end.
"It's my goal to be a Sprint Cup champion, to be a winner," Keselowski said. "The way I approach the work ethic of it I approach it as though I were a baseball player at the plate. You know there's a 100 mph fastball coming at you all the time, there's always somebody trying to beat you.
"But if I go down, I'm going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time. I'm not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out."
On Sunday, Johnson's team was the 100 mph fastball.
And Keselowski knocked it out of the park.
12hK. Lee Davis