Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway

John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images
Mother Nature put on a show Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway, dragging out what many considered to be one of the longest weeks in NASCAR history. The weather added drama to a much anticipated Chase kickoff. When the checkered flag flew just after midnight EST, Matt Kenseth was the victor and two Chase contenders had seen their night end in a plume of smoke.

Our writers run through how the 13 drivers fared in the Chase opener.

1. Matt Kenseth – Race winner and points leader (2063)
By: Beth Bence Reinke

Points leader Matt Kenseth kept his name atop the 2013 standings with a decisive win in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland.

After starting 10th, a two-tire call on the competition caution catapulted Kenseth into the top five. He was leading on Lap 109 when it began to rain, necessitating a five-hour red flag that transformed the event into a day-to-night marathon. The No. 20 Dollar General Toyota made a smooth transition from cool afternoon temperatures into the damp, chilly night, despite a late-race engine failure on the machine of teammate Denny Hamlin. Kenseth dropped as far back as 13th mid-race, but steadily made his way back to the front, leading four times for a race-high 89 laps.

After the last round of pit stops, Kenseth took the lead from teammate Kyle Busch on the final restart, and held on for the final 23 laps for a 1-2 Joe Gibbs Racing finish. Kenseth’s sixth victory of the year marks a career high for a single season.

Kenseth joked with team owner Joe Gibbs after the race: “Coach also needed the win tonight. I don't know if anybody saw the Packers game,” Kenseth said, referring to his favorite NFL team beating the Washington Redskins, Gibbs’ former team, earlier in the afternoon.

When asked about their mile-and-a-half program and moving forward in the Chase, Kenseth was quick to credit his team for this win and his terrific season.

“I think you have to be really good everywhere to be able to win a championship. I'm really enjoying this win. It's been a record season for me. I'm obviously the same guy, the same driver. It's obviously about Joe Gibbs Racing, the guys working there, Jason and the group and everything.”

2. Kyle Busch (-8)
By: Stephanie Stuart

Mother Nature decided to wreak havoc on the Sprint Cup series Sunday in Chicago, but in the end, after two rain delays totaling six hours and 30 minutes, Kyle Busch and the rest of the No.18 team showed that they are serious contenders for the Cup, putting up a strong second-place finish behind race winner Matt Kenseth and taking over second place in the point standings, only eight points out of first place going into New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Scoring his series leading 12th top-five finish of the season, Busch used a combination of a fast racecar and pit strategy from crew chief Dave Rogers to keep his car toward the front for most of the race. After starting 12th, Busch managed to work his way to 10th before the mandated competition caution at lap 30. Strategy by crew chief Rogers put Busch out second for the restart. He stayed in the top five until heavy rain red-flagged the race for a little over five hours on Lap 110.

When the race restarted, a little after 10 p.m. EST, Busch and the 18 team quickly showed that the long delay had done nothing to dampen their spirits. He took his first lead of the night on Lap 173.

Busch would lead again from Laps 227-245 until the final restart, where Matt Kenseth got a push from Kevin Harvick, leaving the 18 car unable to keep up. He gained ground on Kenseth in the closing laps, but would have to take the second-place finish.

“These guys worked hard to give me a good piece,” Busch said after the race. “Kurt (Busch) didn’t get a good enough restart to get with me to push me forward to keep us side-by-side getting into (turn) one, but Matt (Kenseth) had the 29 (Harvick) pushing him who got a god restart. I hate it that I didn’t have enough to stay side-by-side with Kenseth through (turns) one and two because I felt like I could have side-drafted him and kept the lead. We weren’t able to make it to Victory Lane, but it’s a great night for Joe Gibbs Racing to start the Chase like this.”

After a long day in Chicago, look for Busch and the 18 team to make another strong statement this weekend in New Hampshire, especially after the last restart of the race, where he feels like he didn’t have the advantage his teammate did. Kyle is on a mission toward the Cup.

Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images
3. Jimmie Johnson (-11)
By: Rebecca Kivak

Adversity followed Jimmie Johnson to Chicagoland, but unlike the last four weeks, the five-time Sprint Cup champion overcame it. Despite a NASCAR official’s erroneous call and a broken jack, Johnson and the No. 48 team fought back to finish a remarkable fifth place, capping off a bizarre day at Chicagoland.

After starting ninth in Sunday’s Geico 400, Johnson drove up into the lead in little more than 30 laps. The Hendrick Motorsports driver commanded the top spot until he pitted on Lap 75, when a NASCAR official held Johnson in his pit for what he thought was a missing lug nut on the right rear tire. After realizing all five lug nuts were there, the official let Johnson go, but the damage was done. The 20-second stop caused Johnson to lose four spots, restarting in the fifth position.

Johnson was fourth when the rain came out on Lap 110, forcing a five-hour, 10-minute red flag. After the race restarted, trouble found Johnson on Lap 150 when the jack broke during his pit stop, dropping him back to the 22nd spot. But Johnson rebounded, powering his way up to fifth when the checkered flag flew.

With Math Kenseth and Kyle Busch finishing 1-2 for Joe Gibbs Racing, Johnson fell one spot to third in the point standings. But his team’s ability to make lemonade from lemons fueled the turnaround they needed after the last month of misfortune.

“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,” Johnson said at Chicagoland. “We’re off to a good start.”

4. Kevin Harvick (-15)
By: Katy Lindamood

On Sunday afternoon Kevin Harvick spent time with his wife DeLana and their son Keelan, had some dinner and watched football while the rain fell outside his motorcoach. It wasn't a typical day for Harvick and his fellow competitors as they waited out Mother Nature, but when green-flag racing resumed a little after 10 p.m. EST, Harvick and his team had a plan.

The day started with an ill-handling racecar that saw Harvick struggle to make the car turn through the center of the corner. The team was unable to make up much ground in the opening half of the race though he was able to lead Lap 78, which earned one bonus point in the championship standings. By the time the red flag came out for precipitation, Harvick had fallen to outside the top 10.

“We sat down, the engineers and Gil (Martin, crew chief), sat down in between the rain delay there and come up with some good adjustments and we were able to make some good ground,” said the third-place finisher in his post-race media availability.

After a five-hour delay, racing resumed and it was obvious Harvick's car had picked up speed as the temperatures fell. Adjustments made during pit stops aided the progression through the field and by half-way the team had moved solidly into the top 10. Progress was stalled during a pit stop on Lap 149 when the team took four tires instead of two, although a few laps later Harvick was once again slicing his way through traffic. A snafu on pit road forced the team to regroup after the fifth caution as Harvick lost valuable track position when he was blocked by the No. 7 while on the pit lane.

By the end of the night Harvick had made a total of 118 green-flag passes taking home a third-place finish and maintaining his position of fourth in the standings.

Geoff Burke/NASCAR via Getty Images
5. Carl Edwards (-23)
By: Rebecca Kivak

The rain came at the right time for Carl Edwards. After dealing with handling issues during the first 110 laps of the Geico 400, Edwards benefited from the track’s changing conditions to rally to an 11th-place finish.

Chicagoland started off ho-hum for Edwards. After rolling off the grid eighth, the driver of the No. 99 Fastenal Ford started going in the wrong direction, falling back to 14th. Edwards dropped as far back as 18th before the rain intervened, stopping the race on Lap 110.

With more than halfway to go after the race resumed, the cooler temperatures worked in Edwards’ favor as he and the No. 99 crew got the car’s handling under control to finish just outside the top 10.

It was enough for Edwards to maintain his fifth-place standing in the points.

“The rain delay was just what we needed,” Edwards said. “We weren’t very good and it was good to regroup. The track changed a little and that played into our hands.”

6. Kurt Busch (-23)
By: Stephanie Stuart

Sunday’s race at Chicago saw many obstacles thrown at Kurt Busch, two rain delays totaling six hours and 30 minutes, a pit road speeding penalty and a flat tire. Not one of them stopped Kurt from finishing fourth in the race and moving from 10th to sixth in the points standings.

An early race pit road speeding penalty saw Busch go one lap down as he served his pass through penalty. Busch said the green light on his tachometer was on the whole time, so he isn’t sure why he was nabbed for speeding. The pass through penalty left him one lap down, in 27th place, where he would remain when the race was red flagged for rain at Lap 110. The rain delay would last for five hours and 10 minutes.

When the race restarted, Busch’s crew chief Todd Barrier decided to take the wave around instead of pitting the car, a risky move seeing as how the cars had been sitting idle for more than five hours. It would pay off as just a few laps after the green flag fell, Juan Pablo Montoya suffered a blown left rear tire, causing a caution flag and allowing Busch to pit the car.

The wave around proved the be a good decision as Busch cracked the top 10 on Lap 147 and ran the car as high as third. His next lucky break came when the Furniture Row car suffered a flat tire just before entering pit road for its final pit stop of the evening. Busch got the car to pit road for service before the tire gave way, avoiding major damage.

The 2004 series champion moves to New Hampshire Motor Speedway sixth in the points, 23 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. Busch said he feels like the car is missing five percent, but the team will continue to search until they find it - they are like Indiana Jones, and they will not stop until they find the Holy Grail.

Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images
7.  Jeff Gordon (-24)
By: Lisa Janine Cloud

When Jeff Gordon got to Chicagoland Speedway, he’d made peace with missing the Chase. He found out almost at the same time as the world did that he was the beneficiary of an executive decision and rather than being the first also-ran, would be the 13th driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The ultimate Lucky Dog pass. The Drive for Five was alive.

Gordon qualified sixth and was running around sixth when the rains came. Restarting under the lights seemed to suit the Drive to End Hunger Chevy.

"If anything, I thought our car was better when we went back racing," said Gordon. “We were going to try to make adjustments to make it better during the daytime, but the nighttime sort of brought the car to us. The car just turned a little bit better; we needed that.”

On Lap 148 a quick two-tire stop put Gordon up front, and he ended up leading three times for 22 laps in the night. However, a flat left-rear tire sent him into the pits late in the race. Big Daddy showed flashes of the Wonder Boy he once was as he drove back to the front of the field, finishing in sixth place, putting him seventh in points.

“It just shows how much fight this team has in them. We never give up,” said Gordon. “And, what an awesome Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet race car we had tonight. Whoa! Man, it was so much fun! To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go, I know we were like 18th on one of those last restarts.”

His eyes flashed with a competitive light that hasn’t been there in a while.

“That’s what's needed to get this thing started off right. And I’m proud of this team. Can’t wait to get to this next race. What is it? Loudon? We’re ready!”

8. Ryan Newman (-28)
By: Jessica Tow

In a race primarily comprised of a five-hour rain delay and blown engines, Ryan Newman was one of the lucky ones. Newman started the race from the 20th position, fought hard all night and rallied a solid 10th place finish. (You know what that means: it was Bloomin’ Monday at Outback Steakhouse and 10 Quicken Loans customers don’t have to worry about  their mortgage payment.)

After results were compiled, Newman is eighth in the standings. He sits 28 points behind standings leader Matt Kenseth. Jumping four spots, Newman went into Chicagoland seeded 12th in the Chase with the second wild card spot. Now it is on to New Hampshire, one of Newman’s strongest tracks.

Satisfied with his finish, Newman said, “Track position was really important. We were stuck in the back of the pack for a while and couldn't really get going. Every time I got up behind someone, I'd just get so tight I couldn't do anything with it. Matt (Borland, crew chief) got us position with a couple of two-tire stops, and once we were up front, we were able to make a little more of it. Our Quicken Loans Chevrolet was definitely better on the long runs.”

Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

9. Clint Bowyer (-28)
By: Lacy Keyser

After a week of rule changes and NASCAR putting its foot down, one had to wonder how the first Chase race would affect Clint Bowyer. As we all know, Bowyer came into Chicagoland with a huge weight on his shoulders, but he brushed off the negativity surrounding him and focused on his night.

Bowyer finished his night ninth, getting a top 10 in the Chase openerConsidering all the talk and whispering that went on last week, Bowyer can be satisfied that he's gotten his Chase off to a solid start.

“It was a good night,” the driver of the No. 15 Peak Antifreeze Toyota said after the race.

After the first race, Bowyer sits ninth in the hunt for the championship.

10. Kasey Kahne (-31)
By: Katy Lindamood

From the opening laps, Kasey Kahne wasn't overly satisfied with his car, complaining that it was tight which sent the team to work on improvements during pit stops. Slowly progressing through the field, the No. 5 team was able move into the top five before rain forced the race under a red flag.

When racing resumed, Kahne was happy with the improvements his team made. While under caution, the team came in for a routine stop, but was caught up in a bottleneck situation that forced the No. 5 team to pit road again for repairs. After the incident Kahne was unable regain his forward momentum.

Kahne remarked after the race, “There were like three or four guys clueless on pit road; they are all stopping and can't find their stalls – like we've never done this before. I was racing Carl and the next thing you know I'm trying to stop and Jr. is trying to get stopped and we are all hitting one another. Hurt our car pretty bad and from there we just battled.”

The Farmers Insurance Chevy crossed the finish line in 12th behind Hendrick teammates Johnson and Gordon, who finished fifth and sixth respectively, and moved up one position to 10th in the standings.

Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images

11. Greg Biffle (-31)
By: Lisa Janine Cloud

Greg Biffle rolled off the grid seventh in the first race of the Chase and continued his low-key way of performance until the rains came. After the mist cleared and the cars got back on the track, the No. 16 Post-It Ford Fusion had an up and down night. At one point he ran as high as second, but dropped to the back more than once.

“That was a rough night. We had major issues in the pits,” Biffle said. “I don’t know what happened. We started from the back a few times and it is really hard to get track position to pass. Our car was pretty good but every time we got ourselves worked up there, something happened.”

Biffle dropped from the top five to 16th in the last part of the race. “Something broke. I thought the motor broke but it must have been something on the exhaust system. We were down quite a bit of power the last 100 laps.”

While he led two laps, Biffle finished third-worst of the Chasers.

“The restarts just killed me. I just didn’t have the power on the restarts. Once it stretched out a little we were pretty good and could keep up. It was really tough. We were hit and miss a little bit tonight. This wasn’t our best night but we pulled off a 16th place finish.”

12. Joey Logano (-52)
By: Carol D’Agostino

The first Chase race started out on a positive note when Joey Logano earned the pole. Logano maintained the top spot for the first 32 laps before going into the competition caution. Unfortunately he lost five spots coming out of his pit stop, taking four tires instead of two like many of the other teams did.

Despite fighting a loose car, Logano was able to battle back into the third spot before the rain delay on Lap 110. When the race finally resumed nearly five hours later, Logano restarted in 10th place after a series of pit stops and began his march toward the front. On Lap 146 Logano radioed in that he thought his engine was letting go. During a quick pit stop his crew determined his engine dropped a couple cylinders.

Logano tried to stay out as long as he could to gain as many points as possible, but his engine finally gave out at Lap 175, finishing the race in 37th place.

Although disappointed, Logano said he isn’t out of contention. “The problem is it is only 10 races and that makes it hard, but we aren’t out of it. We have a shot at it. This team has shown how good we are. It is always a bummer when you have a mechanical failure like that when you can’t really do much about it. Other times you can at least be mad at yourself or something you did wrong. Everyone did a good job. That is what we have to hold our heads up about. It is a tough break for this team. We are strong. We have battled through a lot of adversity this year and we will keep doing it.”

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-53)
By: Lacy Keyser

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s night in Chicagoland wasn’t a great night at all. First off, he had contact on pit road with the No. 7 of Dave Blaney, which resulted in the No.88 having repairs to the front end.

After the crew worked on the car, it seemed Earnhardt Jr’s. night was heading in the right direction - his car seemed to be finally like the adjustments.

“We were going to get that patched up and maybe be able to make something out of it,” said Earnhardt Jr. on his front end damage.

With 44 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr.’s night went up in smoke. His engine blew, resulting in the No. 88 finishing 35th. He has a huge hole to dig himself out of, but I think the fire he showed - wanting to get back out on the track if the car was fixable - is the kind of fire a champion needs. 

He’s currently 13th in the point standings.

Stop back at Skirts and Scuffs on Friday for our New Hampshire race preview.
Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway Reviewed by Admin on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 Rating: 5