Matt Kenseth, the top seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, added to his advantage in Sunday’s rain-interrupted GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
With a strong push from Kevin Harvick after a restart with on Lap 245 of 267, Kenseth pulled away to beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to the checkered flag by .749 seconds and deny Busch the second three-series weekend sweep of his career.
The victory was Kenseth’s sixth of the season, tops in the Cup series, and his most ever in a single season. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota claimed his first win at Chicagoland and the 30th of his career, 22nd on the all-time list.
“I’ve always wanted to win here in Chicago,” an elated Kenseth said in Victory Lane. “It’s only a couple hours from where I grew up–up in Wisconsin. So it feels great to finally get the win here. We’ve been close a lot.”
Harvick came home third, followed by Kurt Busch, who rallied from a lap down after a pit road speeding penalty in the first third of the race.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon both overcame considerable adversity to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, as Chase drivers claimed the top six spots in the finishing order and 10 of the first 12.
Other championship contenders weren’t so lucky. Pole winner Joey Logano brought his car to pit road under caution with engine issues on Lap 149 of 267. After Lap 175, the engine gave up the ghost, and Logano retired in 37th place.
With the nose of his car punctured during a pit road accident on Lap 169, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered an engine failure on Lap 226, his heavily taped car overheating and ultimately erupting in a geyser of steam and smoke. Earnhardt dropped out in 35th place.
“We had a car we were pretty happy with and you know just thought we were going to have a pretty good night,” Earnhardt said ruefully after taking the car to the garage. “I don’t know what was going on on pit road there, but we knocked the front end off of it on pit road. Those guys all stopped on pit road in front of us.
“We were trying to get that fixed. We still had a chance to get that fixed and get the downforce back in the front. We cut the grill all up and the downforce was gone and we lost a lap there. We were going to get that patched up and maybe be able to make something out of it, but something broke there in the motor. It’s tough. It’s going to be really hard to win a championship this far behind.”
The race was red-flagged for more than five hours as rain pelted the 1.5-mile track. The action resumed at approximately 10 p.m. ET with Kenseth in the lead.
Kyle Busch held the lead when Justin Allgaier’s spin off Turn 4 on Lap 239 caused the ninth caution. Busch and Kenseth lined up for a restart on lap 245 with Busch to the outside, Harvick behind Kenseth and Kurt Busch behind his brother.
Harvick thought his best option was to push Kenseth rather than to take the two cars on the front row three-wide into Turn 1.
“They were evenly matched,” Harvick said of Kenseth and Busch. “I was hoping they would get side by side, you have one of them slide up, able to get three-wide or something happen.
“I figured that was better than going to the bottom and getting three-wide and being pinned on the bottom and getting passed by two or three cars on the top. I figured that was my best option.”
Kenseth was delighted Harvick saw it that way.
“Man, he gave me a big push on that restart, where he could have tried to squeeze it in on the apron, (but he gave) me a big push and go me out front,” said Kenseth, who leads his teammate by eight points with nine races left in the Chase. “I owe him one for that, for sure.”
Kyle Busch, who had won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races the previous two days, saw his chance for a sweep evaporate after Kenseth pulled away.
“Oh, yeah, I watched it slip right away,” Busch said. “Nothing you can do about it. Certainly, it would be nice if we could have won tonight and brought home a trifecta. I didn’t think we had a chance after yesterday’s practice. In the race today, the car was totally different. I could drive the heck out of it.
“It was going to be cool, (but) there’s always those cautions.”
Johnson continued to experience the sort of adversity that has plagued him for the last two months–with one major difference. This time he overcame it.
Johnson had taken the lead after a two-tire pit stop under a competition caution on Lap 32. His advantage had reached three seconds before confusion during a green-flag stop on Lap 75 cost him four positions on the track.
Johnson’s rear tire changer replaced a dropped lug nut on the right rear tire, but the NASCAR official overseeing the action in the No. 48 pit thought there were only four lugs on the tire, instead of the requisite five.
The official ordered the changer back to the right rear, costing Johnson precious seconds, before realizing that all five lugs were in place.
“One (lug nut) had fallen off during the hand-in (of the tire), so it was kind of hanging there, but the tire changer had taken the time,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “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.”
Johnson, however, rebounded from the mishap and was running fourth when a sudden cloudburst coincided with Cole Whitt’s spin off Turn 4, necessitating the second caution of the day. Shortly thereafter, NASCAR brought the cars to pit road and stopped the race.
After the resumption, a broken jack dropped Johnson to 22nd in the running order, but the speed in his car carried him back toward the front of the field.
Gordon, an 11th-hour addition to the Chase on Friday, brought his car to pit road with a flat left rear tire after leading the field to a restart on Lap 173, but an opportune caution at the end of a pit stop cycle kept him on the lead lap late in the race.
Gordon carved his way through traffic and was battling Johnson for the fifth spot when the race ended.