The rain-delayed GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway came down to a dreaded four-letter word called “f-u-e-l” as Tony Stewart out-lasted his competition in a fuel mileage contest to record his first win of the 2011 campaign, starting off his Chase on a high note and extending his season winning-streak to thirteen.
“It is huge,” Stewart said post-race. “I had a migraine all day yesterday so I am kinda glad we didn’t race. We have had a rough year so this is a good way to start off the Chase.”
The opening round of the Chase was a godsend for drivers such as Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, and Jimmie Johnson, all coming out of Chicagoland with solid top-10 finishes. But for drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin, fuel mileage, or in the case of Hamlin, tire issues, prevented those drivers from starting off their Chase on the right foot. Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson also ran out of fuel, but made it to the finish line for eighth and tenth place finishes respectively.
With long green-flag stretches through out the race, fuel mileage was of the utmost importance. Such fuel strategy was what allowed Tony Stewart to win the race, as he was “soft-pedaling” his car into the corners, going off the gas in an all-out effort to conserve enough fuel for the checkered flag. Stewart took the lead from Matt Kenseth on lap 238 and briefly yielded the top spot to Martin Truex, Jr., but Truex had to pit for fuel, giving Stewart the lead as he would manage to save enough fuel to get his first win of the 2011 season and broke a 32-race winless drought in the process.
Harvick, who started Monday’s race tied for the points lead with Kyle Busch, had to settle for second in the final “nerve-wracking” laps. “When he (Gil Martin) turned me loose, I probably should have just listened to him, I was really gun shy,” Harvick said post-race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, his best finish since his runner-up effort at Kansas in June. Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-5. Sixth through tenth were Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, and Jimmie Johnson.
Matt Kenseth was pushed to the finish line by lapped car J.J. Yeley, a tactic NASCAR deemed illegal, which shunted Kenseth from eighth place initially to 21st in the final run-down. Post-race, Kenseth was disgusted with how the race played out.
“I don’t know what to do about the fuel mileage,” said Kenseth, who started on the pole. “It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.”
Also taking a big-hit in points on the day were Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Busch finished 22nd and went from tied with Harvick for the points lead to ninth place, 19 points behind Harvick.
For Denny Hamlin, it seemed as if Murphy’s Law was in full effect for him where if anything could go wrong, it did go wrong as Hamlin had to make a green-flag pit-stop for vibration issues that resulted in a poor 31st place finish and now puts him 41 markers out of first place. This likely ends Hamlin’s pursuit for the championship before it could even begin.
The win put Stewart in second in points, just seven markers behind current points leader Kevin Harvick. Stewart had an average winning speed of 143.306 mph with a margain of victory at 0.941 seconds. There were 22 lead changes among 10 drivers with 6 caustions for 25 laps and an estimated attendance of 42,000, with the rain delay having caused a blow at the box-office for the track.
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