NASCAR: Richmond win bolsters Keselowski’s Chase bid

He’s back and better than ever.

One year after failing to qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff, Brad Keselowski is not only back in the field but also leading the way.

Keselowski claimed the No. 1 seed in the Chase with a dominating victory in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, leading all but 17 of the 400 laps.

The win is Keselowski’s fourth of the season – the most of any driver – and he finds himself in even better position to win a Cup series title than he was two years ago during his first championship season.

“It was just a phenomenal night for our team and everyone at Team Penske. The car was fast; pit crew was flawless. We put all the pieces together,” said Keselowski, who earned his 14th career victory.

“The tire change was a huge challenge for all the teams. That challenge created an opportunity. Our team just really struck and hit it hard.”

As the 10-race battle for the series championship begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski hopes Saturday night’s performance becomes a launching pad for a second series title.

“I think we’re a lot stronger right now personally (than in 2012). I think we’ve been a threat to win more races,” he said. “We have one more race win than what we did entering the Chase in 2012.

“I feel more experienced and more confident.”

Joining Keselowski in this season’s expanded 16-driver Chase field are: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, A.J. Allmendinger, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman.

Kenseth, Newman and Biffle were the only drivers to make the field without any victories in the first 26 races.

Saturday night’s race was the last opportunity for 17 drivers to crash the Chase party with a last-chance victory, but Keselowski’s performance slammed that door of opportunity almost from the start.

Keselowski led the first 42 laps before Harvick ran him down on a long green-flag run to take the lead. Harvick did that one other time and was the only other driver to lead any laps in the race (17).

Even during pit stops, Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford team could not be stopped – he was the first to exit pit road each time.

Gordon closed within striking range in the race’s final laps, but he never believed he was going to get a chance to make a pass.

“I didn’t feel like we had a car that could compete with Brad at certain portions of the night, but we just never gave up on it,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t a win, but still great momentum to carry into the Chase.”

Johnson, the reigning series champion, never got a chance to take part in the postrace celebration with his fellow Chase competitors. He was rushed to the infield care center following the race complaining of dizziness and cramping.

Johnson spent about 90 minutes in the care center being treated for dehydration before he was released.

“I felt like I came in plenty hydrated. We will have to make sure that all the fans and stuff were working in the car,” Johnson said after leaving the care center.

“I was warm at the midway point and didn’t feel like my helmet fan was working. That could definitely cause an issue.”

Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray, among the drivers who needed a win to make the Chase, finished third and fourth, respectively, in the race. Harvick ended up fifth.

This season’s Chase begins with 16 drivers and the three lowest in points will be eliminated after each of the next three races. The best finisher of the final four in the season finale at Homestead, Fla., will become the series champion.

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