The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup got off to a wild start at Chicagoland Speedway Sunday afternoon, where Denny Hamlin rebounded from an early spin on Lap 2 to score a stunning and surprising victory.
Hamlin passed Kurt Busch on a restart with five laps to go to draw first blood in the Chase. And with it, Hamlin is guaranteed to advance to the second round of the Chase, when the field will shrink from 16 drivers to 12.
Here are five things we learned on a perfect late summer afternoon at the 1.5-mile Illinois track.
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The boys are going to have at it again — and again
On a mid-race restart, Jimmie Johnson moved up the track into Kevin Harvick, which resulted in Harvick getting a flat tire, hitting the wall and finishing 42nd. Johnson blamed Joey Logano, who he said shoved him down to the apron, which Logano subsequently denied. When Johnson attempted to explain his take in the motor home lot, Harvick punched him in the chest and the two had to be separated.
Recall in last year’s Chase, there were fights after races at Charlotte and Texas.
There will be more again. This is the playoffs, folks. Already nerves are on a ragged edge.
"We saw more fights in the Chase last year than what we’ve seen in the last 10 years because people feel like they’re wronged by somebody, their entire season is possibly ruined because of somebody else making a mistake or what have you," said race-winner Hamlin. "But it’s just racing. We mess each other up every single week. But those who are battling for a championship take it more seriously now than what we did during the summer months."
It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you finish
Race-winner Hamlin started 29th, spun out on Lap 2 and at one point was running 43rd, a lap down. Yet patience and proper strategy got him back into the mix. And he was one of three drivers who gambled on not taking tires on the final caution on Lap 259. That proved to be the race-winning strategy.
Conversely, Jeff Gordon didn’t take tires on the last stop, either, and restarted in second place, one position ahead of Hamlin with just five laps to go until the end of the race. Hamlin made a great restart and won, while Gordon made a horrible one and fell all the way to 14th.
The usual suspects prevailed
Twelve of the top 14 finishers in the MyAFib.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway were racers in the Chase field, with Kyle Larson (seventh) and Aric Almirola (10th) the only two outliers. Joe Gibbs Racing, winners of 12 of 27 races this year, swept the top two positions and four of the top nine. For almost all of the Chase drivers, it was a good points day.
"Managing points was certainly part of it," said Johnson, who finished 11th, but didn’t hurt himself too badly.
"I just didn’t have the turn to run up front," added eighth-place Brad Keselowski. "I was trying to make something happen but all in all I guess it was a decent day."
The only driver who showed dramatically improved performance was Gordon, who had struggled most of the summer but was in a position to win at the end before his bad final restart.
Restarts and track position are the keys to victory
Nowadays, races are won on pit road and during the last restart. That’s why Hamlin and his crew chief Dave Rogers made the gamble to stay out at the end, which worked for them. This is a theme you will see repeated again and again and again in the Chase.
"This particular aero package, track position means everything," said Hamlin. "Everyone is fighting harder on restarts."
The champ is up against it
Regardless of who was at fault in the contact that ultimately dropped him to 42nd, defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick starts the Chase in a deep hole. Harvick is 16th in points, 22 behind 12th-place Jeff Gordon with two races left in the Challenger Round of the Chase.
For Harvick to advance to the Contender Round, he needs to move up to the top 12 in points or win one of the next two races. If he gets knocked out this round, it would take away one of the title favorites.
"I think it would certainly help our chances, for sure," Hamlin said of the prospect of an early Harvick elimination. "But we’re confident that we can beat anybody, heads up, at Homestead if we have a chance."
For a look at which 12 Chase drivers lead the standings after one race, and which four are bringing up the rear, click here.