Kenseth and Busch Finish 1-2 in Opening Race of Chase
After several weeks of great weather on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit, the rain finally caught up in Chicago, delaying the start of today’s Geico 400 and then causing a long red flag delay just before the halfway mark. The delay would last more than five hours and day would turn to night before the green flag was waved once again, but once it did Joe Gibbs Racing would prove to be the dominant team with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch taking turns at the lead before finishing first and second to open the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Denny Hamlin appeared certain to join his teammates in the top ten before a late-race engine issue sent him to the garage with 20 laps to go and left him to finish back in 33rd.
Kenseth entered today’s race as the point leader in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship courtesy of his Series-high five victories this season which provided 15 bonus points.
After a 1 ½ hour rain delay, Kenseth would start the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota 10th in Chicago, but would fall back to run 14th through the opening green flag run. NASCAR would call for a competition caution on lap 30 and crew chief Jason Ratcliff would make the call for a two-tire stop while many others took four. That allowed the No. 20 Camry to jump all the way into third for the restart. A long green flag run would bring the team back down pit road and this time the Dollar General team would change all four tires. Outstanding work on pit road allowed Kenseth to take the top spot once the field cycled through and he would go on to lead the next 26 laps until another round of rain would bring out the red flag and stop the race on lap 109. After more than a five hour delay for rain, he would bring the car down pit road for a two-tire stop and the crew responded yet again keeping him in the top spot for the restart on lap 117. Kenseth would continue to hold the lead through the next two restarts and was the leader when the race reached the halfway point. He would come back down pit road for a four tire stop on lap 135 when many others were able to take just two or remained out on the track. Kenseth would line up 11th on lap 153. With 100 laps to go he moved into the sixth position and he lined up sixth for a restart with 86 to go. He would continue to prove strong through the next green flag run as he moved into second place behind his teammate Busch with 60 to go. Kenseth would come to pit road under the green flag on lap 218 for four tires and fuel. Once the field had cycled through stops he would return to the second position and that is where he would restart alongside his teammate with 37 to go. Another caution would come out with just under 30 laps to go and the Dollar General team would make the call to remain out on the track. Kenseth would use a tremendous restart with 23 laps to go get under his teammate and make the pass for the lead. He managed to hold off Busch to the finish to earn his career best sixth victory this season and his first win ever at Chicagoland Speedway.
Busch started the No. 18 Doublemint Toyota from the 12th position and was able to drive his way into the top 10 on the opening green flag run. Crew Chief Dave Rogers would make a two-tire change during the first round of pit stops allowing the Doublemint Camry to restart second. He would hold that spot for several laps but would drift back to fourth before the next round of pit stops. Busch would race in the fifth position when the rain returned to Chicagoland Speedway on lap 109 and forced a red flag stoppage. Once the race restarted Busch would bring his Doublemint Camry down pit road and his crew responded with a great stop to put the 18 in third for the restart on lap 117. He would get past the 48 car for second during a restart on lap 130 and settled in behind his teammate Matt Kenseth until the next caution would bring him down pit road on lap 135. Rogers would call for another four tires and Busch would restart 12th on a lap 153 but made an amazing move to the outside and jumped all the way into fifth before another quick caution came out. He would restart fifth and climbed to second by lap 162 and then made the move to take the lead on a lap 173 restart. Busch would hold the lead comfortably through the next green flag run before finally relinquishing the top spot to come down pit road with 48 laps to go. Once everyone had made their stops he would return to the lead and after the 88 blew an engine to bring out a caution with just over 40 laps to go, Busch would restart from the lead with 37 laps remaining. Another caution would come out with just under 30 laps remaining and the Doublemint team would make the call to remain out on the track to maintain the lead. He would choose the outside line for the restart, but Kenseth got a great jump to grab the lead with 23 laps left. Busch would pull away from the rest of the field, but wasn’t able to run down his teammate. He would earn a strong second-place finish.
Kenseth now holds an eight point advantage over Busch in The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship standings. With nine races remaining before a champion is crowned, it is Jimmie Johnson next in line 11 points behind Kenseth, while Kevin Harvick is fourth 15 points out and Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch are both 23 points behind the leader.
Meanwhile Hamlin qualified the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota in the 22nd position and was able to drive up into the top twenty on the opening green flag run before a competition caution came out on lap 30. Hamlin would come down pit road for a two tire stop that put him in the top 15 on the next run. He was able to continue to gain track position and was racing in the 13th position when the race was red flagged for rain on lap 109. When the race restarted Hamlin would come down pit road for a two-tire stop and the FedEx crew was outstanding giving him six spots so he could restart seventh on lap 117. He would get shuffled back on the restart however and when another caution came out a few laps later he was back outside the top ten. He would fall back outside the top 15 during the next short green flag run. Crew chief Darian Grubb would bring the 11 down pit road for four tires and Hamlin would line up 24th for the restart on lap 153. Hamlin would line up 14th for a restart on lap 173 and was able to take advantage when the 24 car suffered a flat left rear tire and bunched up the field on the restart. Hamlin moved inside the top ten before the next caution came out. He would run eighth for a restart with 86 to go and was seventh with 60 laps remaining. He would come down pit road with 50 to go for four tires and fuel. Once the field had cycled through Hamlin was back in the seventh position and restarted from that position with 37 laps to go following a caution for a blown engine on the 88 car. Hamlin would get shuffled back outside the top ten once again as he battled loose conditions on the entry of the turns. The FedEx team would make the call to remain out on the track under the next caution gaining back some of the lost track position and setting Hamlin up to restart eighth with 25 to go. He would hold on to a spot in the top ten, but a few laps later he would report on the radio that his engine was failing. Hamlin would take his car to the garage and was forced to settle for a disappointing 33rd-place finish.
Kenseth won the race, followed by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five. There were nine cautions for a total of 46 laps and 25 lead changes among 16 different drivers.