The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has never featured a night race before, but on Sunday night it got one - by accident. A five hour rain stoppage meant that the race didn't finish until after 11pm local time and so the lights at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland got an unexpected workout to allow the race to go full distance before Matt Kenseth finally made his way to victory lane having claimed first blood in the Cup championship play-offs.
As had been forecast for several days leading into the event, rain had proved problematic even before the start of the GEICO 400. The green flag was delayed by nearly two hours before the track was finally dry and fit for purpose, and the command given for the drivers to start their engines. Polesitter Joey Logano and his Penske team mate Brad Keselowski duly took the field to the line, and proceed to lead for the first 30 laps until the pre-announced competition caution came out on lap 30 to allow teams to check out how their cars were faring.
Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. opted to explore how effective a two-tyre-only stop might prove to be and duly exited pit road ahead of Joey Logano for the restart. It turned out that the two tyres worked fine, thank you very much, and Johnson was still leading by the time he came in for a green flag pit stop on lap 77. Unfortunately confusion with a NASCAR official over a left-rear lug nut dropped the #48 back to fifth place while a four-tyre stop for Busch this time around allowed his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kenseth to take the lead of the race ahead of Keselowski and Logano.
“One [lug nut] had fallen off during the hand-in of the tyre, so it was kind of hanging there, but the tyre changer had taken the time,” explained crew chief Chad Knaus of the delay on the #48. “He did his job. He did a great job getting the other lug nut on there and making sure it was tight. [But] the official thought there were only four on there. We all make mistakes. That happens from time to time."
Sprinkles of rain were continuing to pulse over Joliet, Illinois and had even led to the first caution being extended, but the real threat was a serious weather front bearing down on the superspeedway. It arrived suddenly, and in force, on lap 108 with Cole Whitt the first driver to get caught out by the sudden change of conditions and go for a spin.
That brought out the yellow but that was soon changed for a red on lap 110 as cars were recalled to pit road and covered up: the rain looked set to last for at least an hour, and then there would be the not-insubstantial matter of drying off the track which could take up to two hours more as NASCAR's new Air Titan drying technology wasn't in town this weekend. There was no question of the race being called at this point as the proceedings were still 26 laps shy of the official halfway point required for the race to be 'legal': they would have to wait this out, and if it didn't clear in time to restart on Sunday night then they'd all have to come back to the office on Monday instead.
Some of the drivers appreciated the novelty of an intermission on the proceedings. "I like it, it gives you a bathroom break," quipped Kyle Busch, while his brother Kurt was given some cooling-off time to recover from a pit lane speeding penalty that he was hotly contesting and which had left him a lap off the lead. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was another relieved for the break, having been complaining of the sudden onset of mysterious stomach pains just before the rain had picked up.
It took more than five hours and pushed the restart time to nearly 9pm local time, but fortunately Chicagoland Speedway is equipped with floodlights and so once the surface was dried the drivers were recalled to their cars to get the race back on track. After a quick round of pit stops to prepare, Kenseth duly resumed in the lead ahead of Johnson, Kyle Busch, a recovered Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. Even Kurt Busch was feeling happier, having taken advantage of the wave-around to get his lap back.
After six laps of green the race was back under caution, but at least it wasn't for rain this time - rather it was Juan Pablo Montoya, who after a brief left-rear wheel rub on the #42 ended up with a blown tyre that scattered debris on the track and forced the third caution of the day on lap 122.
Kenseth continued to lead through the midpoint of the race - meaning that if the rain now returned then the result could now be called and everyone could go home - before pitting on lap 148 as the next caution came out for a backstretch spin by Justin Allgaier making his Sprint Cup Series début at Chicagoland. With the race now set fair to run until the finish, teams now had a chance to carry out some more far-reaching set-up changes to their cars now that the conditions had changed significantly with the move into the much cooler night time, and Jimmie Johnson was further delayed by a broken in-built jack on the #48.
Others were having more serious issues, chief among them Cole Whitt whose engine blew up setting the #60 on fire on lap 151 to bring out the next caution. Joey Logano's pole winning #22 Penske car was also sounding sick with the Ford engine having clearly dropped a cylinder, and on lap 175 he too was forced out of the race. Among others experiencing terminal engine issues during the race were Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers and JGR's Denny Hamlin.
"Unfortunately the motor blew up," sighed Logano. "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," he said, adding: "I am pretty angry. That was such as fast race car we had."
Whitt, Vickers and Hamlin were all using Toyota units, and the failures would have made for ominous portents for Kenseth and Busch and a reminder of the reliability issues suffered by the engine manufacturer in the past. Even so, Kyle Busch wasn't playing safe in his pursuit of a Chicagoland sweep (having won the Truck and Nationwide Series races over the weekend) and on lap 172 he took over the lead from Jeff Gordon when the #24 suffered a flat left-rear tyre at the restart, and the #18 settled into what would become a nice 48-lap stint in the lead.
It was the second time Busch had led on Sunday, having made a small piece of history earlier in the race by becoming the first driver to benefit from NASCAR's latest tweak to the restart rules when racing resumed after the initial competition caution. Under the revised guidelines announced to the drivers on Sunday morning, while the driver in the lead controls the pace to the designated restart zone the driver in second place is then permitted to pass him before the green flag - which Busch did, thereby being credited with leading lap 37 even though Jimmie Johnson had immediately retaken the lead seconds later.
Busch surrendered his latest lead on lap 220 for a round of green flag pit stops that segued into a yellow for Earnhardt's engine expiring, and the #18 was once again in front for the restart on lap 230 with Kenseth back alongside him. There was a quick return to yellow flag conditions for a new spin by Allgaier but the top five - Busch, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Johnson - stayed off pit road to lead the field to the green flag for what turned out to be the final time of the night with 23 laps remaining.
Crucially Kenseth managed to wrest the top spot away from Busch with help from a push from behind from Harvick: with no further cautions to give Busch another bite at the apple and with both team mates as evenly-matched in ability as they were in race equipment there was nothing that the #18 could do to carry the fight back to Kenseth over the remaining laps of the race. Instead, he had to watch his sweep hopes slip away by a single position and just three-quarters of a second as the chequered flag came out at the end of a very long day day for all concerned.
"Oh, yeah, I watched it slip right away,” Busch admitted. “Nothing you can do about it. Certainly, it would be nice if we could have won tonight and brought home a trifecta.
"I didn't think we had a chance after yesterday's practice, but in the race today, the car was totally different. I could drive the heck out of it," he said. "It was going to be cool [but] there's always those cautions."
Meanwhile his team mate was celebrating in victory lane. It was Kenseth's six victory of the year: having already come into the Chase as top seed with five wins, this is now officially his best season ever in Sprint Cup competition in his first year with JGR after switching to the team from Roush Fenway at the end of 2012, and puts him eight points ahead of Busch in the reset Chase points standings. It's the first time he's won at Chicagoland.
“I've always wanted to win here," said Kenseth. "It's only a couple hours from where I grew up—up in Wisconsin, so it feels great to finally get the win here. We've been close a lot."
At the end of the race the top six were all Chase contenders: behind the JGR pair, Kevin Harvick held on to third spot and admitted there had been nothing he could do about the JGR pair ahead. "They were evenly matched," he said. "I was hoping they would get side by side, you have one of them slide up, able to get three‑wide or something happen ... I figured that was better than going to the bottom and getting three‑wide and being pinned on the bottom and getting passed by two or three cars on the top. I figured that was my best option."
Kenseth meanwhile was well aware that he likely owed his win to Harvick's contribution at the final restart. "He gave me a big push on that restart, where he could have tried to squeeze it in on the apron. [Instead he gave] me a big push and got me out front," he admitted Kenseth. “I owe him one for that, for sure."
FInishing in third place, Harvick only narrowly held off Kurt Busch who having gone a lap down with that early pit lane speeding penalty had then put his subsequent wavearound to good effect to pick up fourth position - another demonstration of just how consistently strong he's been all season despite not quite being able to clinch an outright win. If anyone had been expecting the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation to fade into the background now the 'serious stuff' of the Chase was underway then Sunday's performance showed that they would have to think again: the 2004 Cup champion was here to make a fight of it.
"We had to overcome adversity with speeding on pit road," explained Busch of the original speeding offence. "All my lights were green, but, hey - when you are cutting it that close and they say you are speeding just take it, get your penalty over with and get back on your horse.
"We had to come from behind and then we got the wavearound. It was a great call by [crew chief] Todd Berrier. Battling up through on the restarts, one of them we went from eighth to third and then the car just was off just a fuzz. A little bit tight on entry I couldn't power down into the corner and then hold the apex. When you know you are off just a little bit guys are going to beat you, but yeah we had a battle with Harvick and we brought our Chevy home in fourth. Top fives are what it's all about in the Chase - one down and nine to go."
Not that the ever-demanding Busch is entirely happy with the performance of his car just yet: "Overall the [#78] was off a fuzz. It's like we're missing about five per cent. But we're still going to search for the five per cent; we're like Indiana Jones, we're not going to be satisfied until we find the Holy Grail!"
Jimmie Johnson rebounded from his early pit road set-backs to finish in fifth place, just ahead of his Hendrick team mate Jeff Gordon.
"Unfortunately, just didn't have the speed at the end there, for that final segment to go race for the end," said Johnson. "But, from a jack failing to a call on pit road for a lug nut that was not supposedly on, and a variety of issues, it was a great comeback. So, we wanted to finish better of course, but we're very proud of all the hard work ... We're off to a good start."
"That was an incredible accomplishment," said Gordon of his own recovery from a flat tyre in the later stages of the race. "It just shows how much fight this team has in them. We never give up ... To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go, I know we were like 18th on one of those last restarts. So, to be able to come up through there and get 6th and have a shot at a top five was a lot of fun. That's what needed to get this thing started off right. And I'm proud of this team. Can't wait to get to this next race."
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski came home as the highest of the non-Chase contenders, the Penske driver having missed the cut-off last week at Richmond International Raceway; the next Chase contenders were Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman in ninth and tenth, while Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne were just on the other side of the top ten looking in but still with perfectly solid results keeping them well in touch with the championship leaders with nine races to go. Greg Biffle will be less happy with 16th, but that's still considerably better than Dale Earnhardt and Joey Logano whose engine woes at Chicagoland leave them with a mountain to climb just one race into the play-offs.
Next weekend the Chase moves to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and everyone involved - from fans and drivers to teams and media - will be hoping that the next few days proves blissfully uneventful compared with the furious aftermath that followed the race at Richmond which had caused such ructions in the sport leading up to Chicagoland, and which had made the stormy weather on Sunday seem like just the final straw. Perhaps now the Chase is back on track, such rows and scandals are well and truly behind us.
Although this being the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, you really wouldn't bet a large sum on that.Full race results
, an interview with the race winner
and Sprint Cup Championship standings
are also available in Crash.net'
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