And Brad Keselowski burst through the door and right into Victory Lane.
Keselowski, who entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the No. 1 seed, shouldn’t have been considered a surprise to win in Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
His path to victory, however, was anything but routine.
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With 15 of 267 laps remaining, Keselowski drove between Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick while they battled for the lead to claim the top spot for himself. He then held off Jeff Gordon on a late restart to earn his series-leading fifth win of the season.
With the victory, Keselowski automatically advances to Round 2 of the Chase regardless of his performance in the next two races.
“I just saw a hole and I went for it. (Harvick) and (Larson) were racing really hard, doing all the things they needed to do and it just opened a hole,” Keselowski said.
“I didn’t know if my car would stick or not, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it. I tried it, it did.”
Getting to that advantageous position was an adventure in itself.
With qualifying rained out Friday, Sunday’s starting lineup was set by practice speeds and Keselowski never got a good qualifying run done in practice, which left him starting 25th.
He battled his way to the front only to have to pit twice under a caution on Lap 184 because of a loose wheel. On the restart on Lap 186, he was 17th and the last car on the lead lap.
“To come in and fix that under yellow was much less of a penalty than if we got going green and had a vibration,” said Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe. “That was key there to being able to overcome that loose wheel.
“From there, we saw we had pretty good speed in our car all day.”
Kyle Busch, Harvick, Larson, Gordon and Jamie McMurray and looked strong out front, as did Keselowski.
But with the victory hanging in the balance, Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske team stood out.
“I want to enjoy the moment, but I still know there’s nine weeks to go,” said Keselowski, who won the 2012 series title but missed the Chase last season. “We have a bit of a hall pass for the next two, which I’m very appreciative.
“But those other seven? Nobody cares that we won Chicago, nobody cares that we won Richmond (Va.). It keeps resetting. You have to reset yourself.”
Larson finished third after a wild duel over the final laps with Gordon. Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano – who also started deep in the field – ended up fourth. Harvick led the most laps (79) and finished fifth.
Entering next Sunday’s race at New Hampshire, Keselowski holds a seven-point advantage over Gordon in the standings.
The four Chase drivers lowest in points after the third race will be eliminated from title contention. At this point, those drivers are Aric Almirola, Greg Biffle, A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Newman.
Most, especially Almirola, will need a win during the next two races to guarantee they advance to the second round.
“You want to get the win. It was tough out there because I’ve been here before running up front, having a really good start to the Chase, then have had problems, and then having to claw our way from there,” Gordon said.
“While you can move to the next level with that happening, you almost kind of have to win after that. I think this is a great time for us to come out of here really solid and with a great second-place finish.”
With their second-round appearance locked in, Keselowski and Wolfe will use the next two races to try to continue to get better.
“The next two weeks I think maybe we can look at the strategy a little different, maybe roll the dice a little more and go for a win,” Wolfe said.
“It also allows us maybe to focus a little bit more on the next round and those tracks. Each round is going to continue to get tougher.”