“It’s Miller Time,” Brad Keselowski exclaimed at Chicagoland Speedway even though there were five laps remaining in Sunday’s Geico 400.
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While the celebration was a bit premature, with a three-second lead over NASCAR’s perennial title favorite Jimmie Johnson, the 28-year-old Keselowksi had every reason to be giddy.
The prospect of winning the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as well as assuming the points lead for the first time in his career, had Keselowski ready to celebrate.
And celebrate he did — in Victory Lane.
“Well, there’s no better place to start than in the lead, right,” Keselowski said. “It was certainly a great race. My opinion is obviously a little skewed on that. A good race, how about that?
“… It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout — just it’s a 10-round bout. Week 1 is done and we won the round, but we didn’t by any means knock them out. We’ve got a lot of racing left to go. We’re feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do.”
After the initial thrill of his accomplishment wore off, Keselowski realized it was important not to let the team’s early success cloud the task at hand — concentrating on the remainder of the Chase.
“I haven’t allowed it to sink in, and my thought process has been in what do I need to do to be the best driver over the next nine," Keselowski said. "I’m not going to let it sink in. I’m going to focus on the next nine, and I know everybody on my team is going to do that.
“It’s great to get to the points lead, but we’ve got so much racing left and it would be a disservice to today’s accomplishments to allow our focus to get off of tomorrow’s workload.”
The Penske Racing contingent is cognizant of the Chase field’s strength — particularly the Hendrick cars, which team owner Roger Penske referred to as “the gold standard” — but Penske doesn’t see that as a disadvantage for Keselowski. After racing for a half-century, Penske knows the organization will have to step up.
He points out that it’s not just five-time champion Jimmie Johnson but all of Hendrick — and others — that the team needs to watch.
“What’s really happening is we’re seeing where we need to be, and we need to be a little bit better. We’ve got the Gibbs team, the Roush team, so it just isn’t the 48,” he said. “But I guess we see so much of the 48, and Jimmie has been such a great champion. Look at (Jeff) Gordon and the rest of them and how (Dale) Earnhardt (Jr.) has run this year.
“. . .We have a tough time running two (teams) competitively, and they have four. So I think anyone that’s in the sport would have to say — (it’s) like the Yankees maybe or someone in football. But, to me, they’re the gold standard, and we want to beat them. We want to beat them fair and square.”
Keselowski witnessed first-hand the challenges from runner-up Johnson. He watched third-place Kasey Kahne close in his mirror as well as Chase outsider Kyle Busch, who finished an impressive fourth.
And with Penske being the lone Dodge Motorsports entry, Keselowski won’t have the depth of resources to rely on from other organizations in Sprint Cup, particularly given the manufacturer’s lame-duck status. Penske doesn’t believe continued support from Dodge will be a problem.
“They’ve been a great partner, and I think the cooperation technically that they’ve had with our chassis guys, our engine people and aerodynamic people has been terrific,” Penske said. “We might be backing out of the garage, but I certainly want to leave them with the best results we can.”
Internally, crew chief Paul Wolfe believes the next major challenge for the team will be at Dover in two weeks, where Johnson is solid and the No. 2 team has struggled. He also feels the team could pick up on its qualifying effort. In the first 27 races of 2012, Keselowski’s average starting position is 16th.
“Usually we can get up front but it’s tougher when you’re coming from 20th,” Wolfe said. But Wolfe has faith in his driver and the team he’s assembled. He believes as the team continues to give Keselowski better race cars, he will rise to the occasion.
“As a team, we’ve continued to grow each and every week,” Keselowski said. “The better race cars he’s driving, the better job he can do and the better feedback he can give us. If you’re driving bad race cars all the time, you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad, and now he’s had some good race cars, he can give us great feedback, and we can continue to make them better.
“I think that’s where over time we still had room to grow, and I think overall he’s just — he does a great job on restarts … getting on and off pit road is so important these days with how important that clean air is. I’ve seen a lot of gain there, as well.”
Penske has won and lost his share of titles in both NASCAR and the open-wheel ranks — including Saturday night in IndyCar when Will Power came up shy of the title. But when Keselowski approached him and offered to build a championship team, Penske believed him.
Together, they pulled off the feat in the Nationwide Series, and in the last two seasons, the pair has progressed tremendously in Sprint Cup.
“Last year when Brad had his accident, I think that showed me what kind of person he was,” Penske said of Keselowski’s vicious wreck in June at Road Atlanta that broke the driver’s ankle. “He wasn’t walking around here, running for sure — he was hurting every day — but was able to put out and win the races he did.
“I’m thrilled at the level we are. When you look at the teams that have been successful, as I said earlier, it’s about the people, and I think Brad is a leader, and Paul is a leader, and I think the people we have, we’re working as one team. We win as a team, we lose as a team, and that’s what Brad has told me when we got together. He said, ‘I want to help you win a championship.’ Obviously if he’s going to help me do it, he’s going to be the champion.”
Fourth: Highest finishing non-Chaser, which was Kyle Busch.
4: Times led for both Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.
Fourth: Victory of the season for Brad Keselowski.
116: Races before Keselowski led the points standings for the first time in his career.
Team owner Roger Penske on his ongoing communication with Brad Keselowski: “He won’t let me sleep, I’ll tell you that. I get Twitters — I’m a big texter now. If you want to know anything just text me based on him. He and I are talking all the time. I’ve got to get to my day job sometimes, I tell him.”