Tony Stewart has not been having the best of seasons, and only scraped into the Chase at all in the final race at Richmond. But if he and his fans were despairing of Smoke being able to make any impression in the post-season shoot-out, those doubts were dramatically swept away when his first victory of 2011 coincided with this first round of the Chase.
After the drama of Sunday's washout, it seemed that the race itself was going to be a rather business-like affair. But it turned out to be a race with a tense last few laps of fuel-conservation that dramatically claimed some big Chase names before the chequered flag came out.
Following the long overnight wait, Matt Kenseth finally led the field to the green flag at the start of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway at 11.13am local time on Monday morning. He led Kurt Busch and the field throughout the first 30 laps until the pre-scheduled competition caution to allow teams to check out the state of the cars on the washed-clean surface of the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
Kyle Busch gambled on taking only two tyres under the caution and emerged in the lead, but it was brother Kurt who had the genuine form at this early stage and who quickly pulled out a big lead over Greg Biffle as the #18 started to slip back on its older rubber.
A yellow flag on lap 70 for debris put an end to the 2.6s lead that Kurt had built up. The #22 got the best of the four-tyre pit stops and retained the lead for the restart ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Menard, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. Once again, Kurt shot out ahead of his rivals in no time flat, while further back it was a great restart for Kevin Harvick who had been trailing back in 16th but who jumped up to tenth in just a few laps after the track went green.
Jimmie Johnson was also flying and up to third, but things were not looking so good for Denny Hamlin who had to head onto pit road under the green flag complaining of vibration and needing a new set of tyres, and who dropped to 37th - hardly the start he wanted to the post-season after squeezing into the Chase on the final wildcard, especially with the top eight runners at this point of the race consisting of his Chase rivals.
Greg Biffle had previously been up there in the top ten, but he was forced to drop back with an unscheduled pit stop of his own. "We didn't figure out what it is yet, something fell off," said Biffle when asked what had happened. "It definitely hurt our chances today though. Fuel mileage was something, but we were handicapped ... We had more problems today than fuel mileage."
Kurt Busch's impressive reign in front was finally ended by Carl Edwards on lap 104, who swiftly pulled out a 0.7s lead as green flag pit stops loomed. Jeff Gordon was the first, making a slightly premature stop on lap 108 for an apparent problem with his right front tyre and ending up a lap down, before others started to stream in shortly afterwards.
Carl Edwards continued to lead after his stop, ahead of Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson who were fighting hard - but remarkably cleanly, given their flare-up last week at Richmond - for second place. Edwards opened up a 3s lead at one point during his part of the race, until Johnson finally won the battle for second position and started to close up on the leader. Finally the matter became academic when a caution came out for debris on the backstretch on lap 145
Ryan Newman took two tyres and headed the restart ahead of Edwards, Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kenseth and Harvick, while Kyle Busch fall to 19th after the crew had to fix problems sustained from hitting whatever it was that had fallen off Biffle's car earlier. He would spend the next passage of green flag racing having to work his way back up through the positions.
Newman kept the lead for the restart with his team mate and team owner Tony Stewart taking a high line into second as Edwards fell back to fifth. But once again, it was Johnson who improved as the laps went past and he took the lead again on lap 163 just before a fourth caution came out for Jamie McMurray's car blowing up. With only 20 laps since the last round of stops, all of the top ten cars felt comfortable going for two-tyres - while Brad Keselowski stayed out altogether and led the field to the restart on lap 168.
Johnson took over the lead in no time flat, but Keselowski's gambit proved reasonably successful and he was still third behind Tony Stewart 30 laps later when he was finally obliged to come in for fuel on lap 197, putting him a lap down in 21st while out of sync and relying on something fortuitous happening on the cautions front. A caution did indeed came on lap 204 when JJ Yeley got into the wall which sent all the leaders heading to pit road, a battle that was won by Matt Kenseth ahead of Stewart, Newman, Johnson and Kurt Busch as all went for four tyres.
Stewart muscled Kenseth out of the way at the restart which also gave Newman the chance to slip into second and Johnson to slide into third before a new caution came out on lap 211 for debris. With everyone still on the knife-edge fuel-wise to get to the end of the race, the lead cars took the opportunity to pop in for a top-up that they hoped would see them all the way home - but it was going to be an incredibly close call for all concerned, and fuel conservation was not the number one order of the afternoon.
Martin Truex Jr. bucked the trend and stayed out. Not having to worry about fuel conservation he was able to stay in the top three despite running older tyres, but when no further cautions materialised he ended up having to pit on lap 251 and was no longer in contention for the top ten.
Of those hoping to run to the chequered with no more stops, it was Tony Stewart who seemed the most confident in his ability to run strong up front, taking the lead on lap 241 after Kenseth was told by his pit crew not to fight for the lead but to watch the fuel mileage above all else. Kevin Harvick was another driver feeling confident of having enough fuel to make it home even if he started putting his foot down, and he took over second place and started closing the gap to Stewart in the sort of way we've seen several times this season from the driver of the #29 dubbed "the closer."
This time, though, Harvick didn't quite have enough time to pull it off - while Stewart had just enough left in the tank to win by nearly a second over the #29, if not to do a burnout or make it to victory lane before running dry. Considering Stewart barely made it into the Chase and at one point dismissed his even being included as it would just waste the space over someone genuinely competitive, claiming the first win of the post-season is a triumphant return to victory lane for the first time in 2011 and 32 races.
"Counting Tony Stewart out - that's pretty funny that he counts himself out," laughed Harvick, who wasn't taken in by such tactics on Smoke's part. "He's won a ton of races to start off the Chase like they did today."
And sure enough, history was repeating itself all over again this week at Chicagoland - although Stewart admitted that the rain delay had probably played a significant part in his victory, revealing: "I had a migraine all day yesterday so I am kinda glad we didn't race!" The victory set aside the frustrations of being winless in the regular season. "It's nice to finally get one of these this year and I guess if you have to wait to get the first one, it's alright to pick it here."
For once, Kevin Harvick wasn't quite up to the challenge of snatching the lead from Stewart, even though "In that last run we were one of the best cars on the track." Problems with early pace and with judging fuel conservation had held Harvick back early in the race and left him just too much to do in the end. "The car was a bit of a struggle in the middle part of the race," he said. As for fuel: "I wasn't ever comfortable but I knew I had saved a little bit under caution and a little bit at the beginning of that run and they felt comfortable with the lap times."
Harvick could have used some great pit stops - and it was revealed later that the #29 team has drafted in key members of Clint Bowyer's pit crew for their Chase campaign after Bowyer himself failed to make the cut. "I think there were changes, pit crews changes to make teams better," said Harvick vaguely, deflecting questions about the changes at Richard Childress Racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third ahead of Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. All of them had been cutting it extremely fine: "It's just enough," said Earnhardt Jr., who ran out of fuel seconds after the chequered flag came out. "It wouldn't have made it another lap." It was a much-needed boost for the #88 which had also struggled to get into the Chase after a lean time in the summer. But he had been confident: "I felt like we would do well in the Chase," he confided. "I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year."
Edwards' end game had been slightly more comfortable. "We struggled a little bit but came back with great fuel mileage at the end and that was huge for us," he said. "That was a nice finish for us in this first race and something we can definitely build on as we head to Loudon."
As for five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, under ordinary circumstances tenth place would have been a nice, solid start to his Chase campaign - if it didn't mean that he was behind seven of his rivals. He had run up at the front until fuel mileage caught him out and he ran dry on the final lap, although he was close enough to the finish line to coast across before too much damage was done.
"I can't complain too much," said a disappointed Johnson, who had really thought he'd saved enough fuel to get to the end without a problem. "From my driving style, I've never been all that good with fuel mileage ... Not what we wanted."
Still, it could have been worse. And it was - for Matt Kenseth. After leading 46 of the 267 laps at Chicagoland (only Kurt Busch led for longer, with 64 laps up front before his handling went off in the latter half of the race) Kenseth fell back to eighth place and had run out of fuel by the time he crossed the finish line. But then NASCAR stepped in and ruled that Kenseth had received an illegal push-assist from JJ Yeley to make it to the line.
"On the final lap of the race, the #17 car was clearly pushed by the #38 car in turns 3 and 4 heading to the finish," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp announced after the race. "He was therefore penalised and put in 21st position, the first car one lap down."
It didn't matter that Kenseth's team had never requested the boost from Yeley - it was still against the rules. Kenseth was furious, but he bit his lip about the penalty and vented about the whole fuel conservation scenario in general. "You are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half-throttle and can't floor it or you will run out of gas," Kenseth said. "It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments, but none of it makes a difference."
Kyle Busch was another to fall at the final hurdle when he ran out of fuel on the penultimate lap and fell to 22nd position, just ahead of Jeff Gordon in 24th who was unable to really recover from that mid-race wheel problem and then ran out of gas at the end. The last-placed Cup contender was Denny Hamlin, whose own early vibration problem had doomed him to 31st even before a later left-front puncture.
"I saved as much fuel as I could, but I guess it just wasn't enough, and we ran out with two to go. Just a really disappointing day," said Busch.
"We had a right front tear apart," explained Gordon of his early race problems. "We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end, then it came down to saving fuel - and we obviously didn't save enough fuel."
In the Chase standings, Chicagoland's outcome means Harvick takes the early advantage in the championship thanks to his second place win building on his bonus points for four wins during the regular season, with Tony Stewart shooting into second spot by virtue of his race win at Chicagoland.
The biggest losers are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, all of who have been considered strong favourites for the Chase but who already have a hill to climb to get back onto level footing with the emerging leaders.
Full Chase points standings
Full race results