Joe Gibbs Racing opened the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format in impressive fashion with three top-ten finishes in today’s Myafibstory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Denny Hamlin would lead JGR with sixth-place finish while Kyle Busch crossed the finish line in seventh and Matt Kenseth was 10th.
Hamlin started his No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota from the 24th position but showed a fast racecar through the opening green flag run as he drove his way into the top 15 and approached a spot in the top ten. Hamlin would run 11th following the opening round of green flag stops and would enter the top ten shortly thereafter. The FedEx Camry would restart ninth on lap 103 but he was forced out of the throttle to avoid those in front of him and lost several spots. Hamlin’s car would suffer from tight handling conditions on the ensuing green flag run and he would lose several additional spots to run back outside the top 15 on lap 120. Hamlin would run 15th with 100 laps remaining. A great stop by his FedEx pit crew following a lap 183 caution would put him out 11th for the restart with 80 to go. He would enter the top ten and was running eighth with 60 laps remaining. He would pit under the green flag from ninth with 40 to go and a caution a couple of laps later would put Hamlin eighth for a restart on lap 237. He was up to sixth when a caution with just over 20 laps remaining came out. Crew chief Darian Grubb would make the call to remain out on the track with the other leaders. He would gain one spot before another caution with nine laps to go would set up yet another restart. The FedEx Camry would elect not to pit under the caution and restarted fifth again with six to go. He would go on to finish sixth.
Busch started the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota on the pole based upon the weekend’s opening practice after the qualifying session was washed out on Friday. He would lead the opening 28 laps of the race before giving way to the 24 car on lap 29. Busch would regain the lead for a lap 70 restart following a round of pit stops under caution. He would hold the top spot for another 18 laps again before giving way to the 24 once again. Busch would lose a couple spots when the outside lane wasn’t able to go on a lap 103 restart, but still managed to run fifth at lap 125. He would enter the pits for a green flag stop on lap 149 from the sixth position but accidently slid beyond his pit box costing him a few valuable seconds and once the field cycled through he would run 10th on lap 154. The M&Ms crew would gain him a couple of spots on pit road following a lap 183 caution and he would restart eighth with 80 to go. He would pit under the green flag from the 10th position with 39 laps to go. A caution two laps later would put Busch ninth for a restart on lap 237. Contact from his brother in the 41 car would cause him to drop a couple of spots and he would run 12th with 25 to go. Crew chief Dave Rogers would make the call to remain out when a caution fell with just over 20 laps remaining. Busch would line up 10th with 18 to go and would lose a couple of spots when the field stacked up in front of him. Another caution with just nine laps remaining would bring the M&Ms Camry down pit road for four fresh tires. Busch would restart 14th with six to go and the fresh tires paid off as he drove into the top ten and finished seventh.
Kenseth started his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota in fifth and was able to race his way into third over the course of the opening laps, but as the green flag run extended he would battle a loose handling race car and had to drop back several spots to run outside the top five prior to the first round of green flag pit stops. Kenseth would hold steady near the top five through the first third of the race. He would lose several spots on a lap 103 restart when the leaders didn’t get a good start and he would run 10th on lap 125. He would use the next 20 laps to drive his way back into fifth on lap 145 just prior to a round of green flag stops. Kenseth would spin entering the pits on lap 149 but was able to avoid any contact and recovered quickly. He would cycle through to run ninth at lap 154. He continued to hold the ninth position with 100 laps to go despite a loose handling car. A caution on lap 183 would bring the leaders down pit road and Kenseth would restart ninth on lap 187. He would get shuffled back on the restart and was racing 14th at the 200 lap mark. He would pit under the green flag from the 14th spot with 40 laps to go. A caution with 37 laps remaining would put Kenseth 10th for a restart on lap 237 and he would gain one spot to run ninth with 25 to go. A caution with just over 20 laps remaining would bring the Dollar General Camry down pit road from the ninth position for two tires. He would restart 11th with 18 laps remaining and he would fall back to 15th when the field stacked up in front of him. Another caution with nine to go would bring him back down pit road for a four-tire stop. Kenseth would restart 15th with six to go and the fresh tires paid off as he gained five positions to earn a 10th-place finish.
Brad Keselowski won the race followed by Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five. There were six cautions for a total of 28 laps and 18 lead changes among seven different drivers.
With their finishes today, Hamlin, Busch and Kenseth are currently sixth, seventh and 10th in the point standings. Four drivers face elimination following the third race of the Chase which will be held at Dover International Speedway in two weeks (second race is next week in New Hampshire). The top 12 advance to the Contender round before the field is narrowed to the Eliminator 8 round and ultimately a final Championship 4 at the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.