Chicago. The opening race of the Chase. Sixteen drivers would continue the quest, one very likely locking his way into the next round, some setting themselves up with fine starts while others…not so much. So much to watch for, so much at stake, but would all this a good race make?
Damn right it would. Brilliant pit strategy, some luck, a flat tire, and a lot of air time for a sponsor highlighted the affair. It all started with a spin by Denny Hamlin on just the second lap. He was down low, so low A.J. Allmendinger did not see him and cut down in front, making both burn off some rubber. For Hamlin, it meant a drop from 23rd to dead last.
That is where his adventure began. One hundred sixteen laps of green followed and by the time a caution did fall, Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, and Jamie McMurray were all a lap down; Clint Bowyer two in the depths. Time to roll the dice, as both Hamlin and Edwards took the wave around and hoped. They got what they wished for shortly after when Austin Dillon’s promising night went away with the bang of a tire and a wall that was not very gentle. With that, the two gamblers were back on the lead lap.
By the time they were down to the final 70 laps, both were in the Top Ten, and with under 10 to go a debris caution gave the crew chiefs one more chance to strategize. Dave Rogers left Hamlin out to start among the Top Five while Edwards came in for fresh Goodyears. Not much difference between them, though Hamlin did beat his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate to the line, to claim a place in the next round of the Chase that begins at Charlotte in October.
Kevin Harvick did not live up to his nickname, as Happy was not with Jimmie Johnson. Six-Time got an unwanted push on a re-start from Joey Logano that powered him down to the apron and beside the defending champ. Johnson tried to move back up, Harvick denied him, and the cars touched. Smoke came bellowing from the left rear of Harvick’s auto, then let go three laps later, to leave him 42nd on the night. Later in the garage, he showed his displeasure with Johnson, who finished 11th. As for Logano, he finished an angelic sixth.
Jeff Gordon was in the 788th race of his Cup career, an unbroken string going back to the final race of 1992. You might remember that his debut also marked the final race of Richard Petty’s career. It also tied Gordon with Ricky Rudd for most consecutive races, a record that should be topped this Sunday in New Hampshire.
Some thought Gordon jumped a restart just past the mid-point of the race to leave Kyle Busch behind. With the idea of drivers policing themselves finally abandoned, it was judged that Gordon did not so much accelerate away, but that Busch had slowed down coming to the line. The review went in Gordon’s favor.
Gordon led for 41 laps, Martin Truex Jr. for 39, and Kurt Busch, who finished third, was the point man for 37 circuits. However, the dominant car for most of it was the M&M Crispy Toyota of Kyle Busch. He led four times for 121 laps, but he melted over the final 50 to come home in ninth.
All but one came home in decent shape, with six points the biggest deficit to be overcome among them. Harvick, on the other hand, is 43 away. Eleven current Chasers have won in New Hampshire in the past, Hamlin among them. So is Harvick. Once. In 2006. I would expect him to go for broke when they break loose in Loudon this weekend.