Heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Joe Gibbs Racing were the favorites to charge toward the championship in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But after the first race in the Chase, it seems like the rest of the field has closed the gap on the powerhouse Toyota team.
Carl Edwards struggled for a majority of Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, but seemed to have a great shot at a solid finish — and maybe even the win — when his No. 19 team gambled on the race’s final caution and chose to stay on the track while others pitted.
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The gamble didn’t work as Edwards lost 12 spots after the restart for the green-white-checkered overtime finish, dropping from third to 15th.
Edwards finished in front of only four other Chase drivers — Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, and Chris Buescher — and is only five points to the good of the cutoff spot for the Round of 12.
"We just struggled all day and I stayed out and didn’t have tires clean enough (for the final restart)," Edwards said after the race. "On the last restart I thought I was going to race for a top five. It’s very frustrating, but we’ll go to Loudon and regroup."
His JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, had speed throughout the race but a costly pit road speeding penalty knocked him out of the top five, forcing him to race back through the field for an eighth-place finish.
"We probably would have ended up third or fourth if it weren’t for my pit-road speeding penalty there," Busch said. "It’s that time of year I guess where I screw up a lot, so I hate it for my guys and all the work they’ve done."
Fortunately for Busch, he’s still 19 points ahead of Austin Dillon for the final cutoff spot in the Round of 12.
The other two JGR cars in the Chase both brought home top-10 finishes with Denny Hamlin finishing sixth and Matt Kenseth placing ninth.
Kenseth also received a pit-road speeding penalty early in the race but rebounded to remain seventh in the points standings, 11 points ahead of 13th.
Hamlin stayed quiet for most of the race after bringing a ton of momentum off of his regular-season finale win at Richmond International Raceway the previous weekend.
"It was uneventful. We didn’t step on our toes and nothing really bad happened," Hamlin said after Sunday’s race. "We did the best we could, so I thought we were a third-place car and we ended up sixth. I can’t be too disappointed with that. You always want to be within a few positions of what you’re capable of in the first Chase race."
Hamlin is ranked No. 4 in the Chase standings, 18 points clear of Dillon for the final spot in the Round of 12.
The field showed they’re not as far behind the JGR cars as some may have thought. If the Toyota powerhouse navigates the ups-and-downs of the first round of the Chase and advance all four drivers, team owner Joe Gibbs will be satisfied when the grid resets following Dover in two weeks.
Two of their drivers — Kenseth and Hamlin — will hope to mimic their early season results as Kenseth won both New Hampshire and Dover, while Hamlin posted top-10 finishes at both tracks.
Busch, the defending Sprint Cup champ, finished eighth at New Hampshire, but got caught up in an accident at Dover and finished 30th.
Edwards will need better results than he had in the regular-season races at the next two tracks as he finished 20th and 28th. Those results won’t be enough to advance to the Round of 12.