Denny Hamlin saw the highs of highs and the lows of lows on Sunday at Chicago, but in the end it was his No. 11 Toyota that ended the day in Victory Lane.
On Lap 2 of the 267-lap event, Hamlin spun after making contact with AJ Allmendinger in Turn 3. Hamlin had a flat tire and right front fender damage after the encounter which resulted in losing one lap. Hamlin remained one lap down throughout the first half of the 400-mile race until a caution on Lap 130.
From then on out, it was the No. 11 that kept on the upswing until the final caution coming with just 10 laps to go. Hamlin was running in fifth when the late race caution for debris came out, but he as well as race leader Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon decided not to pit.
Hamlin was able to take the lead after making a three-wide pass and he did not look back with five laps to go.
“50/50, I was going to drive in there and hope that everything worked out,” Hamlin said of his move on the final restart. “That is unbelievable. Coming back from a lap down, we had a fast car we were just running under green over and over. I thought that we would never get back on the lead lap. We were passing the eighth place car, and we started in the back on the first green flag run. Luckily, that one caution came out and we took the wave around and allowed us to get back on the lead lap. We had a fast car.”
Just 12 days prior to his win, Hamlin tore his ACL in a pick-up basketball game. He is able to be stress free and have fun at New Hampshire and Dover because he is locked into the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Carl Edwards was able to rebound from a pit road penalty during his first green flag pit stop to finish second. Like Hamlin, this set Edwards behind as he was trapped a lap down for the majority of the race. But when the checkered flag flew Edwards was able to celebrate a second place finish.
“It was a big day for us,” Edwards said. “Everyone has worked hard as a group at Joe Gibbs Racing and we’ve made gains. To be able to run this well at the first mile and-a-half track is important. Now, we go to New Hampshire, a place where I feel that we can sit on the pole and win.”
The aforementioned Busch had the race in hand until the Lap 257 caution. The No. 41 was out front for 37 laps on the afternoon and it looked like he was going to cruise to a victory.
“It was the difference-maker today,” Busch said of the late caution. “I thought we had the right strategy, but we didn’t. This is a point’s day. This is a long journey through these next 10 weeks and we’ve just got to go work hard as a team. We had a winning car today.”
Ryan Newman picked up his first top-five finish since April at Bristol. Just like last year’s Chase, the No. 31 team maximized their day when the race was coming to a close. Prior to that caution with 10 laps to go, Newman was running in 14th. He came home fourth.
“Elbows-up,” Newman said in regards to how he was able to run through the field with five laps to go. “We had four tires and I did what I had to do. That last caution was a blessing for us. This is a big improvement compared to where we were last season after the first race. It’s easier to beat yourself then for the competition to beat you.”
Matt Kenseth rounded out the top five after spending most of the day below tenth in the running order. Kenseth was the hottest driver in NASCAR prior to Chicago and with a top-five finish, he padded more points between he and the 12th position, the cutoff for the next round.
After dominating the majority of the race, Kyle Busch finished in ninth. The No. 18 Toyota was out front for 121 laps on Sunday. With the ninth place finish, Busch fell to a tie of third in points, 21 markers over 13th which is currently held by Jamie McMurray.
Jeff Gordon spent a good portion of the race out in front. He restarted on the inside of the first row with five laps to go. However, the No. 24 did not get a good restart and he finished in a disappointing 14th. The good thing for the veteran driver is that he had speed, leading 40 laps. In the past 16 races, Gordon had led just six laps. He currently sits on the hot seat with two races to go before the Chase cutoff.
Kevin Harvick’s chance at repeating his championship suffered a major setback as he had the worst finish of all the Chase drivers at Chicago. After starting from the pole and leading 10 laps, a restart on Lap 137 changed the rest of the afternoon for the No. 4 team.
Harvick restarted on the inside of row one with Jimmie Johnson directly behind him and Joey Logano behind Johnson. When the green flag flew Logano shoved Johnson onto the apron of the tack and to the inside of Harvick. The No. 48 needed to get back up the race track and as he did he collided with the No. 4.
The contact blew out the left-rear tire of Harvick and the car then was backed into the fence. Harvick finished 58 laps behind the leader in the 42nd position and currently sits 22 points behind Gordon.
“I got a fairly good restart,” Harvick said. “I saw those guys coming on the apron and they must have got together and had a good run up. I just held my ground and he (Johnson) just slammed into the side of my door like I wasn’t even there. I guess he just figured he’d come up the race track.”
Post-race push came to shove. Johnson went to Harvick’s motor home to discuss the incident, but Harvick was having none of it. He pushed Johnson and needed to be restrained from going after him. The two Hendrick-aligned drivers have never had any previous issues, and this could be costly for each of their quest to win the 2015 championship.
This has set up for an interesting storyline heading into round two of the Chase next weekend in Loudon.