JOLIET, Ill.(September 14, 2014) — After winning Sunday's Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski is about to experience something no other driver has enjoyed in the 11-year history of NASCAR's playoff: Relaxation. No matter how he finishes in the next two weeks – even if it's a pair of last-place results – Keselowski will survive the first cut of the new eliminations, which reduce the field from 16 drivers to 12. That's because under the revamped Chase format, a win guarantees a berth into the next round. "We have a bit of a hall pass for the next two, which I'm very appreciative (of)," Keselowski said.
With the pressure off until the Oct. 5 race at Kansas Speedway, Keselowski can chill all weekend long at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Raceway. Even if he smacked the snooze button for practice sessions or played Candy Crush during the pre-race drivers meeting and was late to the start, he'd still be in Round 2. That's a far cry from previous Chases, where every position in every race could make the difference between the champion and the first loser. Just look at the 2011 Chase, when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards on a tiebreaker in the finale.
Keselowski and his Team Penske crew don't have any such worries for the next couple weeks. Asked how he'll change his approach to New Hampshire and Dover, Keselowski said he hadn't figured it out yet."I guess that's something we have to sit down and discuss as a group," he said following his series-high fifth win. "I can't really say I've thought about that in detail. I think there's potential with people. There's potential with pieces we might be worried about from a reliability standpoint, things of that nature that come to mind. But I don't know what those opportunities are."
Crew chief Paul Wolfe said he might employ a different strategy on race day but wouldn't change anything else about the team's plan. Where the No. 2 team was slightly conservative with some calls at Chicagoland – though you wouldn't know it from the way Keselowski raced – there might be opportunities to get more aggressive for the rest of the first round. "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.
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That's scary for the competition, since Keselowski certainly looked like he was going all-out on Sunday. His daring pass for the lead with 15 laps to go – he split Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson while they battled for the top position – gave him the track position he needed. Keselowski then excelled from a restart with six laps to go.
Some might suggest Wolfe could change his mind on which cars the team brings for the next two races. For example: If the team feels one car is better than another, why waste it on Dover when it could be used at Kansas? But Wolfe said that conversation is irrelevant because all of Penske's cars are very similar. "We're going to continue to work hard," he said. "We're not going to go on vacation here for the next two weeks. We're going to continue to try to make our race cars better and be prepared really well for Round 2." That didn't surprise runner-up Jeff Gordon, who said drivers with bye weeks would probably drive the same as those who won early-season races and locked themselves into the Chase: They'll still race hard, he said, but probably do so with an eye on the next round. "I think everybody goes out there to race to win," he said. "I don't think that's going to change for those guys. In the preparation for the next three races is where it's going to change. They can now change some of their focus on really getting prepared to go win, say like at Kansas or something like that where they can be in this same type of position going forward."