Brad Keselowski gets into Five-Time's head
He tweaked the noses and played in the heads of the once-unflappable 48 team. He distracted Johnson and his crew, had them talking to each other and to NASCAR officials, then let them think they were catching him, and then took off and left them.
And so in winning Sunday's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski may have planted more important seeds than just the three-point lead he took over Johnson in the standings.
The key to playing mind games in NASCAR is never to admit doing it.
"It's not for me to speak about a mental edge," Keselowski told reporters at the track. "That's for you guys to speculate."
Invitation accepted, although speculation is not a strong enough word for what was obvious. Call it observation.
With about 37 laps remaining, Keselowski pitted one lap later than Johnson. Then, as Johnson barreled off Turn 2 at full speed, Keselowski drove up off the apron and in front of Johnson, forcing Johnson to lift and lose momentum.
"Is he allowed to do that?" Johnson asked his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who headed for a NASCAR official to complain.
Johnson reinforced his objection on the radio, obviously for NASCAR officials to hear: "He screwed me up, coming up on the track that early."
A shenanigan, yes. A violation, no. It was a judgment call for NASCAR under the general rule of getting back onto the track "off Turn 2," and Keselowski made his return to the track off Turn 2. No foul.
While Knaus was giving the official the what-for, Johnson pressed on. With about 15 laps to go, Johnson's crew noticed that he was "catching him [Keselowski] by about 1½ 10ths" of a second per lap.
Yeah, well. ESPN's broadcast crew noticed that just as those words went out over the 48 radio, Keselowski increased his lead by three-tenths in one lap.
A less-slick player of mind games than Keselowski just might have said it all on the radio at that point, something like, "Nya, nya-nya boo-boo."
But Keselowski saw no need in talking about what he'd shown: That the five-time champion 48 team not only could be beaten heads-up, but it could be toyed with as well.
"He did cut up early," Johnson said, meaning up onto the track -- but hitting on a serendipitous pun that might be the best phraseology ever for Keselowski's legerdemain in the driver's seat.
Keselowski "cut up," all right. Always does. Before and after races, but especially during them. What a cutup.
"It did impede my progress," Johnson said. "I had to check up and wasn't sure where things were going. But it didn't affect the outcome, I don't believe. The way he made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off.
"At the time it messed me up, but I don't think it played an outcome in the race."
Not the race. But maybe the Chase.
Keselowski kept making boxing analogies in postrace interviews, how this amounted to the first round of a 10-round bout.
"Week 1 is done and we won that round but we didn't by any means knock them out," he said.
Of course not. That can't happen in a Chase.
What Keselowski did was land two quick jabs. Just enough to get the 48's attention, make them blink, make them feel their noses to see if there was blood.
Nationwide Series: Stenhouse in 'championship form'
And here you have it, all that Nationwide racing is supposed to be about: a young, rapidly developing series regular, on a tear, with the most wins, gunning for his second straight championship before heading into a serious ride in the big leagues next year.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who'll turn 25 next month, blasted past Kyle Busch with 20 laps to go Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway and breezed to his fifth win of the season and second in the past four races. (He finished second in the other two.)
Stenhouse took the lead in the standings over Elliott Sadler, who finished eighth and fell nine points back.
"We didn't have a dominating car until that last run," Stenhouse told ESPN reporters at the track.
But it was much like his previous win, at Atlanta, coming out of nowhere to blow away the competition.
Until Stenhouse began his onslaught Saturday, "I thought there wasn't anybody back there to deal with," Busch said. "Then the 6 comes out of nowhere there at the end. I don't know where he came from."
Stenhouse had found a new way to drive the 1.5-mile oval, lifting a bit early on entry into the corners, and his crew had adjusted his car so that "that last run was the best it was," he said.
"He certainly is in championship form," team owner Jack Roush said of his defending series champion driver, whom he'll promote to Cup level next year to replace the departing Matt Kenseth in the solid No. 17 unit of the team.
"Ricky does a great job of finding a part of the racetrack that will work for whatever setup he is given," Roush continued. "Ricky found a place on the track he could run and was really on his game today."
"The last four races I think we have finished second and first, second and first," Stenhouse said. "I feel like we have good momentum."
Camping World Truck Series: Ryan Blaney steals the show
This wasn't so much about an 18-year-old winning as about him doing it in ways that would have done a 28- or 38-year-old proud.
Ryan Blaney staunchly kept the lead through four restarts in the final 27 laps, the last two against veteran Todd Bodine, to win in only his third start in Trucks and become the series' youngest victor at 18 years, 8 months.
Just how young is the son of journeyman driver Dave Blaney? Well, before Saturday night at Iowa Speedway, the previous youngest winner in Trucks was Kyle Busch, at 20 years and 18 days in 2005 at Charlotte.
"Man, he's just so good and he catches on so quick, it's fun to watch," the elder Blaney told Speed Channel reporters at the track.
Bodine, who wound up third, was more doting even than the dad.
"How. About. Ryan. Blaney?" Bodine gushed. "I think he's better than his dad."
Unflappable as his father, Ryan spoke calmly in Victory Lane. "This is pretty incredible," he said. "This is pretty unbelievable."
Ty Dillon, at the ripe old age [for Trucks nowadays] of 20, mounted a last-lap charge to finish second and take the lead in the season standings.
"I wanted it bad there at the end," Dillon said. "We were coming -- but Ryan Blaney, man, he's an amazing driver. I'm just glad we didn't have to race him all year this year."
The younger Blaney, driving a Dodge owned by Brad Keselowski, chose the outside lane for all four late restarts and held off Jeff Choquette and then Cale Gale before the two pressure tests against Bodine, with another veteran, Johnny Sauter, in the mix.
"Man, it was just a pleasure to watch him drive tonight," said Doug Randolph, Blaney's crew chief. "He was on it."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Racing Resources says
Sprint Cup Series
• Brad Keselowski won the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday. It was his eighth career win in his 116th start and fourth victory of 2012, tied with Denny Hamlin for the most. It was the first Chase win for Keselowski, who became the 21st driver to win a playoff race.
• It's the first time Keselowski has led the points in his career. His previous best was third, done twice.
• Keselowski got his first Chicagoland win in his fourth start there. It's the sixth different track he has won on.
• Keselowski led four times for 76 laps, including final 26.
• Penske Racing posted its 75th career win and fourth victory of 2012. Penske has won twice at Chicagoland.
• Dodge posted its second win at Chicagoland and fourth victory of 2012.
• Jimmie Johnson (second) led 171 laps, only the fourth time in 16 Chase races he led over 100 laps and failed to win. It's his third second-place finish at Chicago, still one of five tracks where he has failed to win.
• Kasey Kahne (third) matched his best Chicagoland finish in his ninth start.
• Kyle Busch (fourth) got his third top-10 finish in eight Chicagoland races.
• Ryan Newman (fifth) earned his 10th top-10 finish of 2012, including seven in the past 10 races.
• Tony Stewart (sixth) started 29th and picked up only his second top-10 finish in the past six races of the season.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. (eighth) started 42nd after an engine change.
• Jeff Gordon (35th), who hit the wall hard on Lap 188 with a stuck throttle, was the worst-finishing Chase driver.
• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Dollar General 300 on Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway. It was his seventh Nationwide Series win in his 99th start and his fifth victory of 2012, ranking second to Joey Logano with six. It was his first win at Chicagoland in his fifth start there.
• Stenhouse's worst finish in the past four races of the season is second (twice).
• Stenhouse led 22 laps, including the final 21.
• Stenhouse assumes the points lead, his first time leading the points since Race No. 11 at Charlotte.
• Roush Fenway Racing posted its 130th Nationwide Series win overall and sixth victory of 2012. It was RFR's first win at Chicagoland.
• Ford posted its second win at Chicagoland and sixth victory of 2012.
• Kyle Busch (second) matched his best finish of the season. He has finished in the top two in four of his past five starts at Chicagoland.
• Austin Dillon (third) had his best finish since finishing third at New Hampshire.
• Brad Keselowski (fourth) had his third top-10 finish at Chicagoland in his seventh start.
• Paul Menard (fifth) has finished in the top 10 in his past 13 starts.
• Michael Annett (seventh) posted his 12th top-10 finish of 2012, including the past four races.
• Elliott Sadler (eighth) earned his 19th top-10 finish of the season but lost his points lead to Stenhouse.
• Joey Logano (ninth) led the most laps (67 of 200) and got his third top-10 finish in four races at Chicagoland.
Camping World Truck Series
• Ryan Blaney won the American Ethanol 200 Saturday night at Iowa Speedway. He became the youngest winner in series history at 18 years, 8 months and 15 days. Kyle Busch had held the record at 20 years and 18 days after winning at Charlotte in 2005.
• Blaney is the seventh driver to get his first Truck series win in 2012. He is the 12th different winner in 15 races this season.
• Blaney led once for the final 50 laps.
• Brad Keselowski Racing posted its first Truck series win. BKR had six second-place finishes prior to Saturday.
• Dodge posted its first win at Iowa. It hadn't won since Martinsville in March 2008.
• Ty Dillon (second) had only his fourth top-5 of the season but took over the points lead for the first time in his career.
• Todd Bodine (third) had his first finish better than 12th in the past nine races.
• Johnny Sauter (fourth) has top-5 finishes in all five starts at Iowa.
• Cale Gale (fifth) tied his best finish.
• Drew Herring finished seventh in his first start.
• Jeff Choquette (eighth) had his best finish.
• Timothy Peters (19th) lost the points lead and now is in second.
• Augie Grill (27th), Drew Herring (seventh), Ryan Lynch (29th) and Ben Reynolds (26th) made their series debuts.
-- Racing Resources