For possibly the first time ever, Dale Earnhardt Jr. snuck up for a good finish. Usually, it’s impossible for Earnhardt to fly under the radar in a race. But this week, with the spotlight on his teammate and his former employee running for the Cup, Earnhardt did just that, finishing 10th after running mid-pack for most of the day.
The Chase is on… and for 12 drivers that means the chance at standing at the pinnacle of NASCAR in November. For everyone else, unfortunately, it means toiling in relative anonymity for the next two months, especially when seven of the top-10 finishers in the race are in the Chase as was the case in Chicago. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was not among them; but both of his teammates were. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano finished fourth and seventh, respectively, though neither received much recognition during a television broadcast that was clearly more concerned with the Chase contenders.
On lap 313, Clint Bowyer managed to pass Ryan Newman and he never yielded that position the rest of the night.
If not for a badly-timed tire problem for Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. wouldn’t be getting my shoutout — because he’d have won the race. Instead, Truex had to settle for fourth after a wild restart. Adding insult to injury, Truex, who has flown under the media’s radar all year long despite being a fixture in the top 10 in points, garnered relatively little television attention compared with the night’s other race leaders.
While Clint Bowyer was holding off all comers for the win, his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates were having a strong race of their own, solidly in the top 10. Although Martin Truex Jr. got caught in a late-race traffic jam that forced him off the road and into 22nd place after leading 15 laps early on, it was Brian Vickers who really shined in just his third Cup race of 2012. Vickers drove his way through the field from a 21st-place starting spot, inserting himself into the top 10 and then the top five, muscling past Jimmie Johnson in the late laps to take home a fourth-place finish.
For the first time in 2012, the man who started on the pole was able to seal the deal and take the car to victory lane. Joey Logano ended the day right where he started. His car was fast during the early going; then as pit strategy and many miles began to change things, the No. 20 faded just a bit as Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated much of the middle of the event. But when it counted, Logano was able to stay out on a late caution while Earnhardt and others were forced to pit for fuel. Martin looked like he might have a shot, taking the lead on the final restart, but Logano, with a faster car, was able to loosen Martin up just enough to slip by and that was all she wrote as the No. 20 opened a commanding lead en route to the checkers.
If there was a prize for the best firesuit, Joey Logano would have it hands down after sporting a suit styled to look like… well, a suit, complete with jacket and tie. Logano, who was also strong in Sprint Cup practice on Saturday, looked to have the car to beat early, but a two-tire strategy later in the race proved to be the wrong one, and Logano was never able to claw his way back to the front. Instead, he was forced to settle for sixth, but if his early run is any indication, Logano could be looking at a much-needed top 10 in the Cup race.
After seven months peppered with near misses and a night wrought with fuel mileage drama, car owner Rick Hendrick reached a milestone that only one other team has ever reached: 200 Cup Series wins. Only Petty Enterprises has more (268).