Survive and advance: Keselowski earns a bye, Gordon is close and a few others on the bubble

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JOLIET, Illinois — Stop Brad Keselowski if you've heard this one before.

"I guess you couldn't ask for a better way to start the Chase," he said after winning NASCAR's playoff series opener. "Today was about as much of a statement as you can make."

That's because his win at Chicagoland Speedway not only guarantees Keselowski, the top seed in the 16-driver field, a spot in the second round; it also traces the route he took to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2012. Now a series-leading five-time winner this season, he can race for fun the next two weeks as he awaits the Chase reset following the Sept. 28 race at Dover — when the field will be cut to 12 drivers.

And all because Keselowski went for broke on Sunday.

He had to pick his way through the field twice, and earned the win after watching a spirited, side-by-side battle for the lead unfold between Kevin Harvick and rookie Kyle Larson. As everyone else held their breath watching the Harvick-Larson duel, Keselowski saw his opening and pounced.

He used a daring three-wide drive through the middle to grab the lead for good.

"I just saw a hole and I went for it," he said. "I didn't know if my car would stick or not, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't try it."

AND NOW FOR A REALLY SHORT CELEBRATION

Immediately after earning what amounts to a bye, a TV reporter asked Keselowski what that would mean. Without hesitating, the driver replied, "I'll drink a lot more beer tonight."

Not so fast. Crew chief Paul Wolfe wanted to make sure his driver didn't party hearty for too long. "We're not going to go on vacation for the next two weeks," he said. "We're going to continue to try to make our racecars better and be prepared really well for round two."

BETTER SKIP THE PARTIES ALTOGETHER

Based on Sunday's results, this quartet of drivers could be in trouble: Ryan Newman (who finished 15th), AJ Allmendinger (22nd), Greg Biffle (23rd) and Aric Almirola (41st after blowing an engine).

All four have two races to get back on pace, starting with next week's showdown at New Hampshire. After that, the field is trimmed to a dozen.

"We have to figure out," said Almirola, "how we can win one of the next two races."

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Miscommunication between Danica Patrick and her spotter led to an awkward on-track run-in with her boyfriend.

Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact late in the race that caused Patrick to hit the wall and bring out the final caution. She said after the race that she heard her spotter give her the on-track status of teammate Tony Stewart, and she was unaware Stenhouse was also close.

"My spotter took the blame on that one," she said. "I just didn't know Ricky was up there and I obviously don't want to hit his car or anyone else with 10 laps to go. I talked with Ricky afterward and we're fine."

Stenhouse finished 17th and Patrick was 19th.

ONCE DRESSED LIKE HIS HEROES, NOW RACING 'EM

Larson almost stole the show before getting passed late by Keselowski and then losing a duel for second with Jeff Gordon. The 22-year-old used to dress up like Gordon when his family attended the NASCAR race at Sonoma. Larson and Gordon wound up sharing a podium after the race and it quickly became a mutual-admiration society.

"It's just really, really cool. Guys you look up to since, heck, Jeff has been racing the Cup Series as long as I've been alive."

"Easy," laughed Gordon, who is 43. "Like I needed to hear that."

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