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.