Preps Talk

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.

93 Days to Kickoff: West Aurora

93 Days to Kickoff: West Aurora

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: West Aurora

Head coach: Nate Eimer

Assistant coaches: Tony Melchiori, DC Bob Fowler, DL Patrick Stremel, LB Charlie Graves, DB Mike Runge, OL Joe Howell, RB Ron Murphy and QB Alex Shaw

How they fared in 2017: 7-3 (4-1 Upstate Eight Valley Conference). West Aurora made the IHSA Class 8A playoff field last season. The Blackhawks lost to Naperville Central 35-14 in opening round action.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Larkin

Aug. 31 @ West Chicago

Sept. 7 vs Streamwood

Sept. 14 @ Glenbard East

Sept. 21 vs Bartlett

Sept. 28 vs Glenbard South

Oct. 5 @ Elgin

Oct. 12 vs East Aurora

Oct. 19 vs South Elgin

Biggest storyline: Game 11. Can the Blackhawks get back to the IHSA state playoffs for the fourth straight season and then advance past the opening round?

Names to watch this season: QB Will Tammaru, RB/DB JaQuan Buchanan and DT Denver Warren

Biggest holes to fill: The Blackhawks welcome back an impressive 17 starters (nine offense, eight defense) to the mix. However, the group will be a bit inexperienced in some spots on both the offensive and defensive line.  

EDGY's Early Take: The Blackhawks' turnaround under head coach Nate Eimer and staff has been a terrific story to follow. That said, the bar for West Aurora football has also been raised. No longer are they satisfied by just "getting" to state. The Blackhawks welcome back a deep group on both sides of the football led by a potentially high powered, balanced offense. On paper, this team has the makings of being one of the better Blackhawks teams in their history. They will challenge for the Upstate Eight conference title and get another shot at the Class 8A playoff field. 

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

Anfernee Simons looks more like a ball boy than a 2018 NBA Draft prospect right now. He’s not considered small, what with having a 6-foot-3 frame with a massive 6-foot-9 wingspan, and he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine at 183 pounds, “heavier” than Lottery-bound guards like Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Collin Sexton.

But there’s plenty of potential to unpack from the soon-to-be 19-year-old, baby-faced combo guard. Don’t let the appearance fool you. Simons is one of the most talented players in the class, and a team patient enough to let him develop at his own pace could reap major benefits in due time.

You won’t find much video on Simons, as the IMG Academy star is preparing to be the first prospect to go preps-to-pros without a year in college since Thon Maker did so in 2016.

Simons, a consensus five-star recruit in the 2018 class, originally committed to Louisville in November 2016 and then decommitted the following September shortly after Rick Pitino was fired. Since he had graduated from Edgewater High School in Florida and was playing a post-grad year at IMG Academy, he became eligible for the 2018 NBA Draft because he is a year removed from high school. That’s where he played this past season, declaring for the draft and signing with an agent in late March.

“The opportunity is there. Me and my parents talked about it a lot and I feel like I’m confident in myself that I’ll be able to make this jump,” he said at last week’s Combine. “So I just felt like, do it now and not waste any time.”

Simons has been on the radars of NBA teams, even if he’s not a household name like Ayton, Doncic and Bagley. He’s currently projected outside of the Lottery, in part because teams haven’t seen him compete against collegiate level talent and because his wiry frame almost surely means time in the G-League as a rookie. But again, the skill set is there.

Simons is a point guard with solid range beyond the arc. He may struggle off the ball because of his size, though that long wingspan and a quick release from his chest should allow him to get off shots. He’s a blur in transition and finishes well at the rim – his 41.5-inch vertical was tied for third best at the Combine, and his three-quarters court sprint was eighth fastest.

He’s a mixed bag defensively. Wingspan is the fun buzz word these days, and that will help him at the next level, but his small frame means there’s work to be done. A strength and conditioning coach will salivate at bringing Simons into the weight room and getting his body NBA-ready.

“Just staying durable through 82 games,” Simons answered when asked about his biggest challenge physically at the next level. “Taking care of your body is real pivotal so I feel like learning how to take care of my body now is a good thing.”

Simons maturely answered that the “unknown” of his game will be both a positive and minus during the pre-draft process. While fellow prospects he may face in team workouts don’t know as much about him and, thus, his game, teams also need to find out more about Simons’ game and off-court habits.

“Coming in young, people don’t know who I am and haven’t seen me play much. That’s the good side about coming in early,” he said. “It could be the same thing (negatively). People haven’t seen me like that, so I feel like they don’t know who I am. They probably think I’m too young to play in the league.”

Simons met with the Bulls and has scheduled a pre-draft workout with them. Though the Bulls feel like their rebuild could go quicker than anticipated – especially if they hit on their No. 7 pick – there could be plenty to gain from drafting for upside on a player like Simons.

Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne will both be free agents in 2019, and Denzel Valentine’s long-term future isn’t set in stone in Chicago. That leaves plenty of openings in the backcourt behind Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Simons won’t be ready to contribute much in 2018-19, but the Bulls wouldn’t need him to. A handful of outlets projected Simons as a top-5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Bulls could snag him a year earlier, let him develop in Hoffman Estates and bring him up in a year when they’re a step closer to contending.