Keselowski takes Geico 400 over Johnson in sneaky fashion

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Keselowski takes Geico 400 over Johnson in sneaky fashion

JOLIET Jimmie Johnson has spent his career finding innumerable ways to snooker his fellow competitors. He's obviously become a great practitioner of that art, given his record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.
But in Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Johnson ultimately found himself in an odd position. Rather than being the guy who does the snookering, he wound up being the snookered in the first of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Brad Keselowski won his eighth and perhaps the biggest race of his young Cup career, holding off Johnson to not only win but also to take the top spot in the Chase standings with nine races now remaining.
Amidst a near-sellout crowd of 70,000, how the Michigan native won Sunday's race looked awfully familiar, almost as if he had stolen a page from Johnson's own "How To Snooker An Opponent" book.
Johnson made his final pit stop for fresh tires and fuel under green flag conditions on Lap 230 of the 267-lap race. Keselowski came into the pits one lap later, received service to his car and then quickly motored back onto the racetrack.
Too quick in Johnson's mind, at least at the outset. Rather than merging into traffic on the backstretch of the 1.5-mile racetrack, Keselowski unexpectedly pulled back onto the track and not surprisingly, right in front of Johnson, who was forced to stomp on his brakes to avoid a collision.
At first, Johnson was none too pleased at Keselowski's move, asking crew chief Chad Knaus over the team radio whether what his opponent did was a legal move. But upon review of the TV footage, NASCAR officials judged Keselowski's move was within the rules.
Johnson has pulled that kind of move several times in his career, even to his own teammates (just ask Jeff Gordon), but he obviously didn't like the tables being turned upon him in the same fashion. Whether it affected him or put a serious dent in Johnson's mojo, the fact remains that Keselowski would go on to a commanding 3.171 margin of victory and become the new Chase points leader.
After the race, Johnson was more contrite, claiming in hindsight that Keselowski did nothing wrong.
"It didn't affect the outcome, I believe," said Johnson, who dominated by leading 172 of Sunday's 267 laps, only to fall short. "The way (Keselowski) made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off. At the time, it messed me up but I don't think it played out in the outcome of the race."
Keselowski himself was somewhat taken aback at how the circumstances unfolded and eventually played out.
"I don't know what happened, (Johnson) either slowed down or we sped up," Keselowski said. "We just took off from there."
Keselowski has now won four races this season, tying him for the series lead with Denny Hamlin who ran out of fuel on the final lap and saw what could have been a Top-5 finish fade to a disappointing 16th-place showing. Hamlin had entered the Chase as the No. 1 seed, but Sunday's finished dropped him to fourth place with nine races remaining in NASCAR's marquee playoffs, 15 points behind the new series leader.
Keselowski was like a pesky fly most of the race. While Johnson clearly had the dominant car, Keselowski continually hovered right behind or within a few spots of his opponent, waiting for what would prove to be the most opportune time to strike.
He couldn't have timed it any better with the way he pulled out in front of and likely rattled Johnson, and then while Johnson's Chevrolet seemed to fade in the closing laps, Keselowski's Dodge just got stronger and stronger.
While there's no question Keselowski is thrilled to have the lead in the standings, he also knows there's still a lot of racing left in the Chase. He may have beaten Johnson at his own game, but Johnson is not the type of driver who will forget what Keselowski did Sunday. Mark my word, Johnson will be looking for payback at some point and Keselowski knows it.
"It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout, just it's a 10-round bout," Keselowski said. "Week 1 is done and we won the round but we didn't by any means knock them out, we've got a lot of racing left to go. We're feeling good about today but know that we have a lot of work to do."
Behind the winning Keselowski and runner-up Johnson, Kasey Kahne finished third in Sunday's race, followed by non-Chase entrants Kyle Busch in fourth and Ryan Newman in fifth. Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was sixth, followed by non-Chaser Joey Logano in seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from the back of the pack to finish eighth, Martin Truex Jr. was ninth and Clint Bowyer rounded out the Top 10.
As for the overall Chase picture, Keselowski assumes the early lead in the Chase standings, leading Johnson now by three points. Stewart is third (minus-8), followed with a three-way tie for fourth between Hamlin, Kahne and Bowyer, all 15 points behind the new leader.
"Congratulations to Brad and those guys, they did an awesome job," said Johnson, who was hoping for an early birthday present with a win Sunday (he turns 37 on Monday). "But, it's a great way to start the Chase for us. There's 10 long races and a lot can happen, but to come out of here second is a great day for us. Sure, we'd rather be in victory lane, but we'll take the second and go on to the next one (next Sunday in New Hampshire) and we're real happy where we're seeded at going into the second round."
The rest of the Chase standings find Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17 points back in seventh, Greg Biffle in eighth (minus-19), Truex in ninth (minus-21), Kevin Harvick 10th (minus-24), Matt Kenseth 11th (minus-26) and Jeff Gordon went from being a potential Chase dark horse to now sitting a distant 47 points behind Keselowski in the 12th and final Chase position.
So, did the guy who has been snookered a number of times in the past by Johnson, feel any different in finally being able to return the favor Sunday? Not that much, Keselowski said, pointing instead to the bigger picture overall. He may have won the battle Sunday, but there's still that nine-race war still hanging over everyone's heads.
In fact, even though he makes his living driving a race car, Keselowski likened the task still ahead as more of a baseball game than a race to the finish line.
"It's my goal to be a Sprint Cup champion, to be a winner," Keselowski said. "Racing is one of the few things I've ever done in my life that has been able to take me to another level mentally and physically, and it demands that out of you to be successful. And there's no guarantee of success in this sport as there's no guarantee of success in any sport but this one in particular.
"And the way I approach the work ethic of it (is) as though I were a baseball player at the plate, and you know there's 100 mile-an-hour fastballs coming at you all the time. There's always somebody trying to beat you, but if I go down, I'm going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time. I'm not going to stare at the ball every time it goes by and be struck out.
"If that means I've got to work harder to go down in that manner, then that's what it's going to be, but it also means I've got a great shot at hitting that ball, and right now that's where our team is at."
It's too bad Keselowski doesn't play baseball, too. With an attitude like that, the Cubs could certainly use a guy like him.

Cubs' Carl Edwards Jr. looks to follow in Mariano Rivera's footsteps

Cubs' Carl Edwards Jr. looks to follow in Mariano Rivera's footsteps

Carl Edwards Jr. couldn't dream up a better pitcher to try to emulate than Mariano Rivera.

Not for a young right-hander who is still getting used to being a reliever with a cutter as his bread and butter pitch.

After picking up his first career save late in 2016, Edwards mentioned how he has been watching video of Rivera. At the Cubs Convention earlier this month, Edwards name-dropped Rivera again in response to a fan question and went into more detail with exactly what he's aiming to accomplish by watching Rivera tape.

Let's be clear: Mariano Rivera is inimitable. He's a once-in-a-lifetime talent and there almost assuredly will never be a better closer in Major League Baseball.

But Edwards knows that. 

"He's great. He's a Hall of Famer," Edwards said. "He goes out there like he has the world in the palm of his hand. He's very competitive; I've never seen him back down. That's one [takeaway] for myself — I'm gonna go out and never back down.

"I don't really get into trying to be like him. I just look more into how he goes about his business. That's something that I can control — how I go about my business."

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Cubs coach Mike Borzello was there with Rivera in 1997 when the now-legendary cutter was born.

It's not fair to compare Edwards' cutter to one of the greatest pitches ever, but his version is pretty nasty in its own right:

The Cubs are still searching for long-term answers in the rotation, but don't have any intentions of moving Edwards back to a role as a starter.

Like Edwards, Rivera began his career as a starting pitcher coming up through the Yankees system. But Edwards actually has a leg up on baseball's all time saves leader: Edwards' first save came in his age 24 season while Rivera didn't tally his first save until age 26 in New York.

Edwards also struck out 13 batters per nine innings in 2016 while Rivera never posted eye-popping whiff totals (a career 8.2 K/9 rate).

As Edwards gets set for what he and the Cubs hope will be his first full season in the big leagues in 2017, his maturation will be important in an age of baseball where relief pitchers have never been more valued.

Rivera pitched in the playoffs nearly every year, routinely working more than one inning and posting ridiculous postseason numbers: 0.70 ERA, 0.759 WHIP and 42 saves while taking home the World Series MVP in 1999 and ALCS MVP in 2003.

The Cubs hope Edwards will be pitching in the postseason on a regular basis, too.

For now, the 25-year-old is still reveling in the glory following the 2016 Cubs championship.

He served as honorary drummer at the Carolina Panthers game in November.

"That was pretty amazing. That's a highlight of my offseason," Edwards said.

He grew up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan despite being a South Carolina native, but Edwards said he did get a pair of Cam Newton cleats to wear for 2017 when he and Cubs teammates like Addison Russell or Matt Szczur throw the football around in the outfield to get loose.

Edwards was also blown away by the reception from Cubs fans at the Convention — "This is my third year and every year as been better" — but still hasn't fully wrapped his mind around the ending of the 108-year drought.

"Everything happened so quick," he said. "Hopefully in the next couple weeks when I have a break, I can sit down and soak it all in."

Vote for this week's High School Lites Viewers' Choice Game of the Week

Vote for this week's High School Lites Viewers' Choice Game of the Week

Who wants it more?

We are putting High School Lites, Chicagoland’s top prep sports show, in the hands of area basketball fans in our “Viewers’ Choice Game of the Week.” Fans will get the chance to pick one game that the @CSNPreps crew will cover on Friday night. We will send our cameras to the game that gets the most votes; highlights of that game will appear on that night’s “High School Lites” broadcast at 11:00pm. The show also live streams at csnchicago.com. High School Lites will also have broadcast replays at 7:30am and 8:30am the following Saturday. This week, for the first time ever in our “Viewers’ Choice” poll, we will have girls basketball as our focus:

Warren at Lake Forest, 7:00pm

Glenbrook South at Maine South, 7:00pm

Vernon Hills at Maine West, 7:30pm

Poll opens Monday at 12:00pm and closes Thursday at 4:00pm. Here is what fans need to do to vote:

**Follow @CSNPreps on Twitter.

**Note the “pinned Tweet” atop the @CSNPreps feed. Vote for the game you want us to cover.

**Spread the word! 

We will make an announcement on @CSNPreps just after 4pm Thursday with the official results of which game will be covered. And as a reminder, be sure to follow @CSNPreps for updates on the “Viewers’ Choice Game of the Week,” along with other basketball news, scores and highlights this season.