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Jimmie Johnson did everything he needed to do to win the Geico 400 on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., starting from the pole position, leading the most laps and enjoying flawless pit stops in the No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet.
But Johnson ended up finishing second to Brad Keselowski by 3.171 seconds in the opening race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Keselowski pitted a few laps later than Johnson on the final stop and blended a little early, breaking Johnson’s momentum on track. That quick re-entry to the track also put Keselowski’s car into clean air for the remaining 25 laps. Johnson tried to run him down but was forced to settle for the runner-up position for the third time in 11 races at the 1.5-mile oval. It was Johnson’s 14th top-five result of 2012 and his sixth top-five at Chicagoland. He remains second in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, three points out of first.
“The last maybe three runs he was definitely a factor,” said Johnson, who remains winless at Chicagoland. “I was maybe a little better than him on the third-to-last, and then on the next-to-last we were about equal. But on that last one, he was just better.
“So congratulations to those guys. They did an awesome job, but this is a great way to start the Chase for us. It’s 10 long races and a lot can happen, so to come out of here in second is a great day. And, of course, we want to be over there in victory lane. That is just a given, but we will take this second and we will go on to the next one, and I am real happy for where this Lowe’s team is right now.”
Johnson appeared to have the car to beat early in the race. Outside pole sitter Aric Almirola beat him to the line in the opening lap, but Johnson assumed the lead for the first time three laps later. It would be the first of four times he led for a race-high 172 laps.
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson had few complaints about his No. 48 Kobalt Tools machine. After leading laps 49-102, he lost the lead after pit stops on lap 102 when Keselowski took two tires to Johnson’s four. The back and forth between the two continued when Johnson recaptured the lead on lap 151.
Johnson maintained the lead on the next-to-the-last pit stop, under caution on lap 189. Johnson pitted for the final time on lap 229, during green-flag racing. Keselowski came in for service several laps later. As he was blending from pit road onto the racetrack, he veered up the track, breaking Johnson’s momentum. The two remained 1-2 for the final 25 laps, with Johnson unable to catch Keselowski.
It was Keselowski’s eighth career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his first at Chicagoland.
Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five behind Keselowski and Johnson. Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were four caution periods for 23 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 267-lap race.
With nine races remaining before a champion is crowned following the season finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the top-12 drivers competing for the title rank as follows:
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the second race of the 10-race Chase – is the Sylvania 300 on Sept. 23 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.