Matt Kenseth fired the first shot in the Chase Sunday night. Kenseth came into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup seeded in the top spot and showed why Sunday night winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in a marathon affair that took ten hours to complete thanks to Mother Nature.
After leading early but dropping back due to pit strategy, Kenseth rallied back and overpowered Kyle Busch on a restart with 24 laps to go and held on for his series leading sixth win of the season.
Kyle Busch was second, Kevin Harvick third, Kurt Busch fourth with Jimmie Johnson fifth. Two of those in the Chase, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr., ended the night in the garage with blown engines.
The stories of the night, besides two long rain delays for nearly eight hours total, were the rallies staged by Johnson and Jeff Gordon both of whom overcame issues to finish inside the top 10. Kurt Busch also overcame issues to finish third.
After a nearly 90 minute rain delay, Logano took the lead from the pole and charged ahead. After the long delay the field seemed to quickly settle down, and by lap 20 Logano had stretched his lead out to just over a second over second place his teammate Brad Keselowski.
NASCAR threw a competition caution on lap 30. Johnson led the race off pit road along with several others all of whom took only two tires. Logano was sixth on the restart. The first restart since NASCAR instituted new restart rules went cleanly with Johnson choosing the outside lane. By the time the field hit turn two Johnson had shot to the front.
Green flag pit stops started on lap 76 with Johnson leading the way. Johnson was held up though as a NASCAR official signaled that a lug nut on the right rear tire was lose; the result was a 20 second stop. Kurt Busch was nailed for speeding on pit road and forced back in for a pass-through penalty. Kenseth led while Johnson settled into fifth after the stops. Rain, meanwhile was again starting to fall.
The race became a contest to see who would lead at the halfway point. That came up a little short as Cole Whitt spun on lap 109 to bring out the second caution just as rain began to fall in earnest. Not long after, NASCAR brought the field to pit road and displayed the red flag.
No one then could have realized that it would be just over five hours before the engines would be re-fired. The race that had started in the daylight became a night time affair. During the long rain delay social media was abuzz with chatter from fans wondering if NASCAR would get the race in that night or wait until Monday, to NASCAR executives who were keeping everyone updated with assurances that the race would be run Sunday no matter how late, to drivers and crewmembers looking for something to eat.
“Went to Sonic. Gave me a little bit of energy,” rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. told Examiner. “(Then) took a nap and really played it out well.”
Most drivers retreated to their luxury motor homes and did what most of the rest of America does on a Sunday night.
“Ate some dinner, relaxed and watched football,” Harvick said. “That's what I did, really not think about racing. When it was time to go, you get back into the right frame of mind.”
That “go” time become a few minutes before 10:00 p.m. Eastern when the field rolled off pit road. After several laps under yellow to allow crews to dry pit road, the field came in with most taking two tires. Kenseth led off pit road with Johnson second, Kyle Busch third followed by Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Most drivers knew the transition from a day race to a night race would change the way the cars handle.
“The pace definitely picked up,” Harvick said. “My car was way better in the night than it was in the day. I mean, there was a couple times three-quarters down the straightaway, (the engine) hit on the rev limiter, I hadn't touched it all weekend.”
The green flag fell and the race resumed on lap 117. Caution came out four laps later when Juan Pablo Montoya’s Chevy lost a right rear tire that had been damaged just before the rain delay when he made contact with Cole Whitt. Among the few who pitted was Kurt Busch who had taken a wave around and was able to get back on the lead lap after his earlier penalty for speeding on pit road. The green fell on lap 128 with the Kenseth leading on the inside and Johnson in second on the outside. Kyle Busch took over second from Johnson two laps later. Kenseth meanwhile stretched his lead out to six car lengths. Chase contender Logano began to suffer engine problems on lap 146 and slowed.
Justin Allgaier in his Sprint Cup debut went for a solo spin on lap 149 bringing out the fourth caution. The field pitted for routine stops while the Penske Racing crew looked under the hood of Logano’s machine. He would go back out, but was trialing smoke. Another Chase contender, Greg Biffle, ran over an air hose on his stop and was forced back in for a penalty. Johnson also had issues on his stop when the jack broke. He restarted in 19th. Despite the issues, Johnson’s crew reported that they found a puncture on the right front tire they had just taken off.
Up front Jeff Gordon who got only two tires took the lead but before the field could make it to turn three the fifth caution came out when Whitt’s engine exploded exiting turn two. The car slowed in a ball of fire down the backstretch before coming to rest.
On the restart on lap 159 it became a three wide battle for the lead between Gordon, Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers with Gordon able to muscle his way to the point. Vickers soon fell back while Edwards and Kyle Busch vied for second. Vickers continued to fall back and soon pitted with an engine issue. Keselowski had worked his way forward after dropping outside the top 10 and soon took over third from Edwards.
The sixth caution came out for debris on lap 167. The leaders pitted knowing that they would only need one more stop to go the distance. Gordon and Kyle Busch took fuel only and Busch was able to beat Gordon off pit road by less than a car length. Biffle didn’t pit and led the field to the green with Kyle Busch underneath. Gordon suddenly slowed with a left rear tire down. He was forced to pit again for left side tires. Busch meanwhile easily passed Biffle for the lead.
Logano’s engine finally let go on lap 178 bringing out the seventh caution. Logano, who was seeded sixth in the Chase at the start of the day, went to the garage.
“I am pretty angry,” Logano told Examiner. “That was such as fast race car we had. After the rain delay we came in and put on four tires and lost some track position but we were going to take two on the next one, kind of like the 24 did and he cycled out to the lead there. Unfortunately the motor blew up. You have these every once in awhile. It is a bummer to have it in the Chase when you are running for a championship. I feel like Chicago was one of those tracks we could win at. Everyone was doing the right thing. We have a really fast race car and we put it on the pole and led laps today, it just wasn’t our day I guess.”
Other Chase contenders had issues during the previous pit stops as Harvick, Kahne and Earnhardt all had contact on pit road. Kahne and Earnhardt were forced back in and during the seventh caution as well as crews worked to repair the damage.
Kyle Busch led the field to the green on the outside with Biffle on the inside. Behind the lead duo, the field spread out three and four wide fighting for spots. Busch soon moved ahead as Biffle tried to hold off Kenseth. By lap 185 Martin Truex Jr. was able to work his way past and take over second while Kurt Busch who at one time was 29th after the pit road speeding penalty fell into third. Johnson meanwhile had raced his way from 20th and was inside the top ten. By lap 195 Kenseth had passed Kurt Busch for third and past Truex for second soon after. Gordon was 32nd one lap down. Kahne had worked his way back to 11th while Earnhardt was in 26th. By lap 201, Johnson was up to third.
Green flag stops began on lap 217. Leader Busch pitted on lap 219, Johnson came in right behind. Johnson who had earlier told his crew that his car was “terrible” now reported his car was “awesome” as he pitted. Gordon out of sync thanks to his flat tire on lap 173 stayed out to grab the lead and hoping for a caution. He got his wish at the expense of his teammate.
Shortly after he had pitted and the crew had worked to repair damage on the front end, Earnhardt Jr. spun as his engine blew on lap 226 bringing out the eighth caution.
“I don’t know what was going on on pit road there but we knocked the front end off of it on pit road,” Earnhardt said. “Those guys all stopped on pit road in front of us. We were trying to get that fixed. We still had a chance to get that fixed and get the downforce back in the front. We cut the grill all up and the downforce was gone and we lost a lap there. We were going to get that patched up and maybe be able to make something out of it, but something broke there in the motor. It’s tough. It’s going to be really hard to win a championship this far behind.”
Gordon pitted under the caution and was back on the lead lap.
Kyle Busch led the field to the green with Kenseth second. Kurt Busch, Harvick and Johnson all contested the third spot. Gordon restarted 16th. By lap 232 Gordon had raced his way into the top 10. The ninth caution came out when Allgaier spun again on lap 240. The top 10 stayed out while the rest of the lead lap cars pitted with the majority taking two tires and fuel.
The caution set up a 24 lap dash to the finish. Kyle Busch led, Kenseth was second with Kurt Busch, Harvick, Johnson the top five. On the restart Kenseth was able to power past Busch for the lead. Gordon moved up to sixth with 20 to go. Kenseth held station with Busch chasing while behind them the top ten spots were being contested.
“I thought I got a good enough restart, wasn't great, but I had enough going with the 20 (Kenseth) beside me,” Busch said. “Then the 29 (Harvick) pushed the 20 by me before I got to turn one. I didn't have enough to stay on his door to hold him back to be alongside of him through one and two on the backstretch to try to race him in three and four.”
“Once the 20 got out front, I was a little too loose,” he added. “Just couldn't do anything with him. That was the race right there.”
With seven laps to go Gordon and Johnson raced side by side for fifth. With less than five laps to go, Gordon faded back and settled into fourth. While ahead, Kurt Busch and Harvick battled for third with Harvick holding the upper hand as Kenseth took the checkered flag.
“I was worried about the rain, the track conditions in the nighttime,” Kenseth said. “I thought we were going to be better in a hotter, slick condition. But just shows I don't know what I'm talking about. But, yeah, had a good car. Had great pit stops, great strategy, had that restart at the end. That push from Kevin got us out in front where we really needed to be.”
Harvick held on for third, Kurt Busch was fourth, with Johnson fifth. Gordon was sixth, Keselowski seventh, Stenhouse eighth with Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman rounding out the top ten.
“It cooled off and it gained a lot of grip,” Johnson said of his up and down night. “That changed our balance a little bit, but after an adjustment we got it right. I felt like we had an awesome car. We just lost track position. We had a jack fail tonight we had a weird call on the right-rear on one of the pit stops just had a lot of issues with track position, but still got a good finish.”
Others in the Chase field: Edwards was 11th, Kahne 12th, Biffle 16th. Earnhardt and Logano were scored with DNF’s and placed 35th and 37th.
Kenseth holds onto his top spot in the Chase standings ahead of new second place Kyle Busch who trails Kenseth by eight markers. Johnson fell one spot to third 11 points back; Harvick remains fourth 15 back, Edwards remains fifth, Kurt Busch moves up to sixth, likewise Gordon and Newman each moved up a spot to seventh and eighth. Bowyer fell one spot to ninth Kahne moved up to 10th with Biffle, Logano and Earnhardt filling out the bottom three spots. It was Kenseth who was the big winner on the day turned into night. He led the most laps (89) and won the race ensuring that he received the maximum points possible in the first of NASCAR’s ten races to decide the championship.
“Every single point, every position is equally as important from here all the way until the last lap at Homestead,” Kenseth said.” So you want to get as many points as you can get each and every week. We did a great job of that this weekend.”
“You want to enjoy this,” he added. “Then go to work on New Hampshire tomorrow, try to go there and get as many points as you can. Just kind of take it one week at a time.”
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