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Brad Keselowski wins in Joliet, claims top spot in standings for Roger Penske

Brad Keselowski celebrates wvictory lane after NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race ChicagolSpeedway Sunday Joliet. | Matthew T. Thacker~AP

Brad Keselowski celebrates the win in victory lane after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday in Joliet. | Matthew T. Thacker~AP

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Chase standings

Driver Points

1. B. Keselowski 2,056

2. J. Johnson 2,053

3. T. Stewart 2,048

4. D. Hamlin 2,041

5. K. Kahne 2,041

6. C. Bowyer 2,041

7. D. Earnhardt Jr. 2,039

8. G. Biffle 2,037

9. M. Truex Jr. 2,035

10. K. Harvick 2,032

11. M. Kenseth 2,030

12. J. Gordon 2,009

Updated: October 18, 2012 6:23AM

Roger Penske wasn’t sure what to expect Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet during the ­GEICO 400, the opening race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Penske, the iconic IndyCar owner who has yet to win a NASCAR championship, watched Penske Racing driver Will Power lose the IndyCar title to Ryan Hunter-Reay at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on Saturday night. Power blew a 17-point lead in the standings when he wrecked, enabling Hunter-Reay to win the title.

But Penske knows how important the Chase is, and his spirits lifted when Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski beat Jimmie Johnson by three seconds. The victory puts Keselowski in the points lead by three over Johnson and eight over defending Cup champion Tony Stewart.

Chase driver Kasey Kahne finished third, Kyle Busch was fourth and Ryan Newman fifth. Stewart was sixth.

Keselowski led 76 laps, but Johnson started on the pole and led a whopping 172. It was almost reminiscent of Johnson’s victory in July at the Brickyard 400, where he led nearly the whole race.

But Keselowski figured Johnson out and kept the five-time champion winless in the Cup series at Chicagoland.

Keselowski took the lead on Lap 105 but fell to second on the 165th lap of the 267-lap race. He regained the lead with about 11 laps to go and maintained a two- to three-second lead over Johnson.

After a late pit stop put Keselowski in the lead, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, thought Keselowski didn’t re-enter the track properly. But Johnson said it didn’t impact the outcome, and NASCAR didn’t rule against Keselowski.

“It’s a policy of merging down the back stretch, off of Turn 2, and I feel like that’s what we did,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s victory and his leap to the No. 1 spot in the standings eased Penske’s pain of the night before.

“Last night was tough on Will, but winning the first race of the Chase is fantastic,” Penske said. “After last night, I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. I was planning to come win or lose.’’

Keselowski’s victory also is helping Penske forget his problems with ex-Penske drivers AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch.

Penske fired Busch in the offseason after Busch was verbally abusive to a pit reporter at Homestead-Miami last November. Then Penske fired Allmendinger earlier this summer after Allmendinger failed a drug test and NASCAR suspended him indefinitely.

If Keselowski holds on to the points lead and wins the Cup in November, it will be the last Cup title for Dodge and first since Richard Petty’s title in 1975. Penske announced in March that he will switch to Ford in 2013. A few months later, Dodge decided to pull out of NASCAR.

“I’m going to go down swinging as hard as I can,” Keselowski said. “If that means I have to work harder, then that’s what it’s going to be.”

Points leader Denny Hamlin ran out of gas on the last lap and finished 16th, barely ahead of Aric Almirola, who was the first car in lapped traffic. Hamlin now sits fourth in the standings, 15 points back.

“We didn’t get the car full [of gas on a pit stop], and we made an adjustment instead,” Hamlin said. “It put me in a box, and I was trying to hold my position and slow down. But that’s the way it goes. It’s tough to lose that many spots that late.”

Among other Chase drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to start from the back of the field after crew chief Steve Letarte decided to change engines Saturday. Earnhardt, who qualified fourth, finished eighth.

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