NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler was sick as a dog going into the Sunday afternoon STP 300 race at Chicagoland Speedway - but he looked and felt a whole let better when he ended up in victory lane a little over two hours later.
"I'm still not 100 percent, but it feels good to win here in Chicago," said Sadler after claiming his third win of the season. "We drank a lot of fluids and I had to have a few IVs just to stay hydrated."
No one could have told from his performance behind the wheel once the adrenaline kicked in that Sadler was feeling so sickly, but it still took a while for him to come to life after starting the race from 15th position.
It was Sam Hornish Jr. who got the best start when the green flag came out, pulling away from polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who was left fending off the advances of Austin Dillon. Once that scrap was resolved, Stenhouse regrouped and led Dillon past Hornish to take the lead, although he had a scare halfway through when his car got loose in turn 2 and took off toward the wall, momentarily handing Hornish back the top spot before Stenhouse got things under control again.
After that, Stenhouse was in the lead until lap 48 when green flag pit stops began. Kyle Busch had been running up in third place by this point but got handed a pit lane speeding penalty, while Brendan Gaughan was penalised for hitting the commitment cone on entry. The track went yellow seconds later when Jamie Dick cruised to a halt on the track apron.
Stenhouse led at the restart on lap 60 ahead of Hornish, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, Brian Scott and Dillon, but Hornish got the better run and pulled away on the inside line. It took Stenhouse 16 laps to muster up what he needed to dive back under Hornish for the top spot again, but once he was there he was secure in the position through to the next round of pit stops, which started under green soon after lap 100.
Stenhouse himself was one of the last cars to came in on lap 108, just before a debris caution came out. That gave Stenhouse another restart face-off with Hornish to survive, and this time he did better and retained the lead; Dillon, Kligerman and Scott continued to shadow the leaders; Elliott Sadler had also slowly worked his way up from loitering in the mid-teens to start to nudge into the top five for the first time.
A third yellow came out on lap 128 when Brad Sweet almost but not quite managed to catch a spun. Stenhouse faked a move to pit road under the caution that was perhaps a little too convincing, because many of the leaders did indeed decide to come on to pit road: Sadler was pleased to get a service after complaining that the #2 car was way too loose, while Justin Allgaier had the opposite problem with the #31 being way too tight and Hornish just went for fuel and a few tweaks but waved off a change of tyres.
That left Stenhouse fighting with Kligerman for the lead at the restart, while Dillon, Scott and Whitt had also stayed out of pit lane - but it was Sadler with his improved set-up and fresh set of tyres who was able to rapidly surge past them to settle into third place. Up ahead, Stenhouse was once again proving that the longer the run, the better the #6 looked as he started to pull out a lead of around two seconds over Kligerman by the time it came to pit stops under green around lap 165 for those who hadn't pitted under the previous caution.
Stenhouse, Kligerman, Hornish and Dillon had all duly cycled through when the fourth caution came out, for a second spin of the day for Brad Sweet. That was exactly what those early stoppers didn't want to see as they were now a lap down; while Stenhouse got the lap back by virtue of being in the lucky dog position, it still demoted him to the back of the lead lap in 10th place, 16th in line with all the lapped traffic to attend to after having led 135 of the 165 laps so far and just 35 to go.
That left Sadler and Allgaier leading at the restart ahead of Ryan Truex, Kyle Busch and Kenny Wallace. It might have been 'luck' getting the caution at precisely the right moment, but it was the sort of luck resulting from their earlier solid strategy laid down by Luke Lambert: and the restart also confirmed that the team had finally nailed Sadler's ongoing handling issues, as he shot away into a huge lead leaving a messy scramble over the rest of the top six positions.
And Sadler clearly needed to put his foot down, because Stenhouse had taken to the high line to run around the midfield traffic he was now caught up in, and was soon making rapid progress through the field. He finally passed Justin Allgaier for second place on lap 184, but Sadler's early breakaway meant that the #6 was still two seconds behind the leader and time was running out.
Stenhouse kept at it and had the gap to Sadler down to just a second on lap 192, but time was running out and it seemed that he badly needed a late caution to reset the race and give him a shot at taking Sadler at the restart. And this time luck was on his side, and on lap 192 the fifth caution of the day came out.
It was caused by Sam Hornish Jr. running up to the back of Kyle Busch and Brendan Gaughan who were running side-by-side in a close battle for ninth place. Hornish intended to duck down underneath them both, but he badly misjudged it and clouted the back of Busch's car, sending the #54 hard into Gaughan and trapping the #33 against the wall in an accident that did heavy damage to both race cars.
"I feel real bad about it," said a contrite Hornish after the race. ""I looked down because it looked like one of our hood pins was coming loose, then I looked up and got right into the back of Kyle's car."
Once that mess was cleaned up, it put the race into green-white-chequered overtime: Stenhouse would have his chance after all. But restarts and the first couple of laps under green hadn't exactly been the #6's forté all afternoon, so Sadler knew he still had a decent chance of pulling this off. His odds of winning were dramatically improved when Justin Allgaier starting behind him deided to give Sadler a push for all he was worth, and the two broke away from Stenhouse who found himself under pressure from Kenny Wallace.
Stenhouse regrouped, dropped Wallace - but found his way forward blocked by a determinedly intransigent Allgaier, while all the time Sadler was receding ever further into the distance. Stenhouse took to the highest of lines and was nearly crushed into the wall by Allgaier still trying to defend his position, but finally the position was conceded and Stenhouse had second. But it was too late to do anything about first - Sadler had already claimed the chequered flag.
"At the end, we just couldn't hold off Ricky," said Allgaier. "We were trying to get to Elliott and working both the high and low line."
"We were in the right place at the right time," said Sadler of his race. "Ricky had the strongest car all day, but we kept working at it and eventually got into the right position.
"We kept our lead in the points and we go now to Indianapolis next week for the first-ever Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway," he added.
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