JOLIET, Ill. — A long day’s journey into night ended with Matt Kenseth winning the Geico 400, the opening race of the 10-event Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
In earning his series-high sixth victory of the season, Kenseth led a race-high 89 laps in an event that not only saw its start delayed by rain for more than an hour but also included a five-hour, 10-minute delay before a stubborn front finally passed and the track was able to be dried.
“We did everything we needed to do,” Kenseth said. “I’m glad we got out front (late in the race, aided by a aero push from Kevin Harvick).
“It’s just been a great fit (since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing this season). This whole organization has been so special.”
Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, finished second, followed by Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman.
Kyle Busch was visibly upset that he finished second, having hoped he could win three races in as many days, having captured Friday’s Trucks Series race and Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. It would have been only the second time in his NASCAR career that the younger Busch brother would have pulled off a clean sweep.
“We would have liked it the other way around (with him winning and Kenseth finishing second),” Kyle Busch said. “They beat us, and it’s a good night for Joe Gibbs Racing to start the Chase like that.”
Johnson struggled in the first part of the race — prior to the lengthy rain delay — due to a variety of mechanical and pit-road issues. He fell far back in the pack but still managed to rally to take a top-five finish.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the speed at the end there in the final segment,” Johnson said. “We had a variety of issues, but we’re still proud of the way we came back.”
Gordon, Johnson’s car owner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, also fell back deep in the field with about 40 laps to go, but he mounted an impressive rally. Gordon was added to the Chase field Friday in an unprecedented move by NASCAR in the continuing fallout of last Saturday’s race at Richmond and several attempts by teams at race-finish manipulation.
“That was an incredible accomplishment,” Gordon said of his late comeback. “It just shows the fight we have in this team, they just never give up. To get sixth and have a shot at a top-five (finish), that’s what we needed to get this thing started off in the right way.”
Equally as important as the win for Kenseth was the fact he left Chicago still leading the Chase. The leading Chase drivers and where they are in the standings: Kenseth, Kyle Busch (eight points back), Johnson (11), Harvick (15), Carl Edwards (23) and Kurt Busch (23). Seventh through 13th are Jeff Gordon (24), Ryan Newman (28), Clint Bowyer (28), Kasey Kahne (31), Greg Biffle (31), Joey Logano (52) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (53).
Several Chase drivers suffered a variety of mechanical maladies in the race that proved costly, including Logano and Earnhardt, both with blown motors. Earnhardt finished 35th, while Logano wound up 37th.
The race started under clouds in mid-afternoon and resumed under the lights on what was essentially a green race track after all the rain washed away any rubber to aid with grip for drivers and their race cars.
Once the race restarted, it remained under caution until Lap 115 when the green flag finally fell to resume high-speed action.
The field completed 109 laps before a heavy deluge descended upon the Speedway.
Of the 13 Chase drivers, 12 were in the top 17 positions before the rain delay. The 13th Chase driver, Kurt Busch, was in 27th position when the stoppage came. Busch was caught speeding on pit road and was forced to serve a costly stop-and-go penalty that plummeted him in the field.
Logano, who started on the pole, and Johnson dominated in the first part of the race, with Logano leading 32 laps and Johnson 40. After building nearly a three-second lead, Johnson had a slow pit stop during a caution period on Lap 76, which was compounded by an incorrect ruling by a pit official who believed lug nuts were loose on the right rear tire of Johnson’s car, further delaying his exit from the pits.
Johnson eventually came back on the track in fifth position.
“There was one (lug nut) hanging there,” crew chief Chad Knaus said during the rain delay. “One had fallen off during the hand-in, so it was kind of hanging there, but the tire changer had taken his time. He did his job. He did a great job getting the other lug nut on there and making sure it was tight. The official thought there were only four on there. We all make mistakes. That happens from time to time.”
Logano suffered engine troubles on Lap 146 that dropped him back to 27th in the field, becoming the first of the 13 drivers to have a major problem that will seriously affect his place in the Chase standings going forward for the remaining nine events.
Logano stayed out on the track and realized it was just a matter of time before his car gave up the ghost, and that ultimately came on Lap 177, the engine blown and his night over. He ended up with a disappointing 37th place finish, which will have a major impact on his Chase chances going forward.
Just a handful of laps after Logano’s motor gave out, so too did Earnhardt’s, who ended up a disappointing 35th. It was one of the worst finishes in a Chase opener in Earnhardt’s career.
NOTES: It was the second time in three years that the Chase opener was impacted by rain. Three years ago, the race never even got under way, as it was postponed to the following day. NASCAR didn’t want a repeat performance Sunday, choosing to wait as long as it did rather than have teams and fans return to the track Monday. … The rain notwithstanding, Sunday was the first race under NASCAR’s mandate of more dedication by drivers as well as more scrutiny by sanctioning body officials to maintain integrity of the racing after last Saturday’s fiasco at Richmond.