Keselowski looks stronger than ever

RICHMOND, Va. -- Saturday night's Cup race at Richmond International Raceway didn't provide the kind of excitement NASCAR was probably hoping for -- unless you count the shirtless guy sitting atop the catch fence that brought out a caution late in the race.

It couldn't have gone any better for Brad Keselowski and his legion of fans.

The 2012 champion dominated the Federated Auto Parts 400, leading 383 of 400 laps and cruising to his Sprint Cup-leading fourth victory of the season. That means he's the top seed (by three points) as NASCAR embarks on its latest -- and, unlike this race, what it can still hope is its greatest -- Chase to the Sprint Cup.

"What a night," Keselowski told ESPN. "Part of me, I pulled into Victory Lane and I pinched myself once to make sure I wasn't dreaming. These are nights you don't forget as a driver and you live for. ... I couldn't ask for a better way to enter the Chase than to win and take the first seed. We're ready. We want to run for another Cup. We really feel like this team has it. Team Penske is really clicking. It's the 400th win for Team Penske [across multiple racing series], and this feels so lucky to have such an incredible team and a car like we did tonight and be able to execute it and not have any bad luck. We've had plenty of bad luck over the last few weeks, but wow, what a night."

Said second-place Jeff Gordon: "We were good. We just weren't quite as good as Brad on the short runs. He could really get away from me and stretch it out, then we could pull him back in. We just didn't have enough laps."

Does NASCAR's revamped Chase format have enough to keep fans interested over the next 10 weeks?

The new wrinkles to the Chase this year include 16 drivers vying for the title, with three rounds of eliminations to winnow the field to four at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the season finale.

Up first is the "Challenger Round," starting next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway and culminating two weeks later at Dover International Speedway, with New Hampshire Motor Speedway sandwiched in between. Like making the Chase itself, if you can win one of those three races, you make it into the next round. And all points are reset after each round so that no driver has an advantage after the "Challenger Round."

The top 12 in Chase wins and points will remain in contention into the "Contender Round," which starts with the fourth race of the Chase at Kansas Speedway and ends two weeks later at Talladega. Then eight drivers make the "Eliminator Round" starting at Martinsville and ending at Phoenix. Miami is a round all its own -- the "Championship Round" -- with the four surviving drivers from the "Eliminator Round" in a one-race shootout, with the driver who finishes ahead of the other three winning the title.

Got it? Good.

For Keselowski, this season has been a return to the form he used to win the championship in 2012 after missing the Chase last season, and the win-and-advance formula certainly should be an advantage for a team that has been strong all season.

So how does he think his team stacks up now compared to his breakthrough?

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

"I feel more experienced and more confident. I feel like from a teammate standpoint, we have a very strong teammate [Joey Logano with three wins]. Having a great teammate isn't so much about the days where things are going your way; it's about the days and weekends when things aren't going your way, having someone else to lean on and find your sanity back. We certainly had some of those days in 2012. We have a teammate and a scenario there across the board where that team has gotten very, very strong and is part of our success. I think for a lot of reasons. I could go on forever.

"I'm sure I'm leaving some things out, that's not because they don't exist, but I feel stronger than what we've ever been."

NASCAR has to be left wondering what might have been. Two drivers who missed the Chase, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray, ran in the top 10 most of the night, but neither had anything to challenge Keselowski.

So what NASCAR hoped would turn into a scintillating battle to make the Chase by as many as 16 drivers ended up with the two drivers in on points before the race started -- but still in jeopardy of falling out -- being the final two drivers to make the Chase based on points.

Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle were certainly happy to be in the championship conversation leaving Richmond.

"I tell you what, when you are that far off [the setup], it is the hardest thing in the world to drive," said Biffle, who finished 19th and made the Chase by seven points over Bowyer. "Those guys that ran up in the top five probably didn't break a sweat, but I tell you what, this is the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life, driving and trying to stay in the top 20 like this.

"At the beginning of the race, we were a lot better than we were at the end. We kept losing the handle and trying to adjust on it but weren't getting anywhere. I drove all I had, and that is all I could do to bring it home where I did."

Six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson managed to finish eighth, but his story took a turn as soon as the race ended when he laid on the ground and then sat slumped against his car. He was taken to the infield medical center and treated for dehydration. He was released just after midnight ET.

So it's on to Chicagoland, where it's win one of the next three races and advance or score more points than four other drivers in the next three races and advance. Not much different than the regular season when you think about it.

And you can bet Keselowski -- and everyone now chasing him -- is thinking about it.