Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
With the Chase underway, it’s hard to be a fan of a driver who didn’t make the cut because if he’s not winning a race or tangling with a Chase driver, he’s going to be largely ignored for the rest of the season. Such was the case in Sunday, when Kyle Larson, who started the day in 18th, raced his way into the top 10, where he stayed for the second half of the race, finishing a solid seventh. But between the melee on the final restart that shook up the running order of the Chase drivers and the almost, kind-of, sort of a fight after the checkered flag, there was hardly any mention of Larson, who had his best finish since Dover in June. Larson, who has needed some solid runs to salvage a lackluster sophomore season, drove an excellent race, outdriving several of the Chase drivers when it counted most.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
The track surface at Chicago is far from smooth, thanks to the Northern winters which bring cycles of freezing and thawing, and the aged track gave drivers fits on Sunday as they searched for grip. Throughout the field, drivers were fighting cars that were both loose and tight at different points on the track. While the race wasn’t a great one, this time around, there was some action, and with a lower-downforce package next year combined with softer tires and the track surface, it could produce some exciting action a year from now.
Another thing that has crept into the sport thanks to tighter rules on things like gears and suspensions is a decided lack of risk as the durability of the cars increases. There was a time when dominant speed came with a price: a fast car could be a ticking time bomb, with the same gear ratio that made it fast also putting it on the edge of a mechanical failure. That aspect of the sport, and the strategy that went with it, has largely disappeared with the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow and Gen-6 racecars. That’s a shame, because there should be some attrition during races; it is one thing that’s missing that makes races less exciting these days.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick looked like he had a car good enough to finish where he started, but a mid-race tangle with Jimmie Johnson ended up with Harvick in the wall with enough damage to send him to the garage for more than 50 laps. After the race, Harvick delivered a punch to Johnson’s solar Plexus, which could draw the ire of NASCAR as well. Harvick finished 42nd, and his hopes of repeating as champion are already dim; if last season was any indication, a poor finish in the first race of a Chase round means the chances of moving on are very slim indeed.
Brad Keselowski won at Chicago a year ago and he made a last-ditch effort to repeat, coming up short despite a charge on the final run to the checkers. Keselowski finished eighth, and while that’s not what he’d hoped for, it leaves him just 13 points behind leader Matt Kenseth in the standings, well inside the top 12 as the series heads to New Hampshire, a track where Keselowski has a win and eight top 10s in 12 starts.
When… did it all go sideways?
Take your pick, especially where the Chase drivers were concerned, but it could have been a lot worse for most of them. Denny Hamlin spun the No, 47 on lap 2 and suffered minimal damage but lost a lap (Hamlin blamed AJ Allmendinger for coming down on him, but the replay showed otherwise). Clint Bowyer fell a lap down early and never really hit his stride. Carl Edwards drew a penalty for speeding on the first round of pit stops and reported possible engine issues early, but rebounded to finish second. Jeff Gordon had a marginal restart, drawing complaints from Kyle Busch that Gordon jumped the start, but NASCAR chose not to penalize Gordon (probably a wise choice after failing to penalize both Busch and Kenseth for similar incidents last week).
The one driver who did end up worse for the wear at the end of the day was defending champion Kevin Harvick. On a mid-race restart, Harvick was lined up on the bottom with Johnson and Joey Logano behind him, and Logano ran over the back of Johnson’s car, forcing Johnson to drop to the apron to avoid a crash. When Johnson tried to move back onto the racing surface, Harvick dropped to the line to hold him down and the resulting contact cut a tire on the No. 4. Harvick was able to get back on track after suffering heavy rear-end damage, but was only able to finish 42nd, which could well end his hopes of repeating as champion before the second round of the Chase. Johnson looked for Harvick after the race, presumably to apologize for the tangle, but Harvick met him with a swing to the chest. Johnson walked away, refusing to engage Harvick, who had to be restrained from going after Johnson. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the last driver to take a swing at a competitor (Marcos Ambrose, who hit Casey Mears in the face after a dispute at Richmond in 2014) received a fine and probation, but no points penalties.
Why… did Denny Hamlin win the race?
Hamlin got into Allmendinger on just the second lap of the day and turned both the No. 47 and his own No. 11 around. He fell a lap down as a result, and for a while, it looked like he might not have the opportunity to get it back as others fell off the lead lap ahead of him. But by the end of the race, Hamlin was in position for a solid finish. What put him in position for the win was an accident; Hamlin’s crew chief called him to the pits with most of the field on the final caution, but Hamlin had already passed the commitment line when word came down, forcing him to stay on track. Hamlin got a great restart to pass Kurt Busch and Gordon, and was able to hold off a charging Edwards for the final five laps, even with old tires. Hamlin made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear on Sunday, and that could bode well for his title hopes.
How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Martin Truex Jr.; Furniture Row Racing: Truex led 39 laps on Sunday and looked to be in great position on the final restart, but when Gordon, in front of Truex on older tires, couldn’t get going, it backed up the entire outside lane, and the resulting bottleneck sent Truex back to 11th. In reality, Truex had a top-five car and might have made a run at the win had he not been forced back on the restart. He has a bit of a hill to climb in points, but if he’s strong enough at Loudon and Dover to move on, he’s still a darkhorse in the title race.
Casey Mears; Germain Racing: Mears was very clearly frustrated with his racecar for much of the race, but he communicated well with his team throughout and they made adjustments on each stop which did improve the car. Mears probably should have finished a couple of sports better than he did, but he slid through his pit box on his last green-flag stop, which cost him several spots. Mears was able to race back to 20th in the closing laps, and he gained a spot in points as well. He’s currently 57 points out of the top 20.
Justin Allgaier; HScott Motorsports: If you’re wondering why Brian Scott isn’t featured here, it’s because when Scott or Ty Dillon run the No. 33, it’s a Richard Childress Racing effort. They’re still on the chart below. Allgaier was another driver in this group who came close to a top-20 run before falling back to 23rd late in the race. He’s shown a lot of improvement in the second half of this season, and with his job possibly on the line, Allgaier needs to finish the season strong.
All the rest:
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row Chevy||4th||13th
Led laps early; had a shot to win but got bottled up on final restart on two tires
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||24th||20th
Front end “terrible” early; car improved but overheating issue late; slid through pit on final stop
|33||Brian Scott||Circle Sport||Jewel-Osco Chevy||21st||22nd
RCR car for Scott; tire penalty on first pit stop
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Brandt Chevy||31st||23rd
Among the fastest in this group early
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||CRC Knock ‘Er Loose Chevy||36th||27th
Liked the car better if he ran the bottom; one pf the better handling cars in this group
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||MDS Ford||33rd||29th
Battled a tight car
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||CSX Play It Safe Ford||38th||31st
Started in back (transmission change); possible issue with 60 to go, car suddenly got loose
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Love’s Travel Stops/Children’s Miracle Network Ford||35th||32nd
Car was very loose early in the race; didn’t improve on first stop; got off-sequence late in the race because car wasn’t full of fuel on next-to-last stop
|32||Josh Wise||GO FAS Racing||Beerfrost.com Ford||40th||33rd
On pit road lap 47, reported a vibration
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Allstate/Peterbilt Group Chevy||37th||34th
Steering problems mid-race
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Dr. Pepper Toyota||34th||35th
Quiet on the radio
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Food 4 Less/Scott Products Chevy||15th||36th
Spun by Hamlin on lap 2; flat tire lap 50, pitted but didn’t get rub fixed; struggled all race long to get car to turn; speeding penalty on final stop
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Jewel-Osco Chevy||32nd||37th
Speeding penalty on first pit stop; faster in top groove but harder to handle
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Estes/Draft Kings Toyota||41st||38th
Very frustrated with lack of grip in the car
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Cosmo Motors Toyota||39th||39th
Tire penalty on first pit stop; slapped the wall with 30 to go; into the wall again to bring out late caution
|98||Reed Sorenson||Premium Motorsports||Ford||42nd||40th
Penalty on first pit stop for removing equipment
|62||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports||ChampionMachinery.com Chevy||43rd||41st
Never able to compete within this group
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford||DNQ||—
Fast in practice; qualifying rained out
|95||Michael McDowell||Leavine Family Racing||KLOVE Radio Ford||DNQ||—
Qualifying rained out
|30||Travis Kvapil||The Motorsports Group||Curtis Key Plumbing Chevy||DNQ||—
Qualifying rained out