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Stewart starts the Chase with first win of 2011

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.


by Andrew Lewin



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