By Steve Mickey
Joe Gibbs Racing entered the first race of the Chase at Chicago as the hottest organization in the sport. Seldom can an organization claim that all four of its teams are not only in the Chase but are all more than capable of winning the title but Gibbs did just that on Sunday. JGR made a big bold statement when the checkered flag waved on Sunday as Denny Hamlin clinched his second race of the season but maybe more important for the organization was that all four drivers posted solid finishes that will put them in a good position to move into the next round.
The win for Hamlin was well earned as he is just two weeks removed from tearing his ACL that will have to be surgically repaired as soon as the season is over. He started 29th and to make his trip to victory lane even tougher, his Toyota spun out on lap two leaving him a lap down. It was not until a caution for debris on the backstretch on lap 122 that he got back on the lead lap after he was waved around before the race was restarted on lap 129.
The Chase’s elimination format often times puts more pressure on the crew chief than the driver and Hamlin’s crew chief Dave Rogers made the first real gutsy call of the Chase when he elected to leave Hamlin out on the track during the last caution with worn tires. Hamlin was able to charge his way to the front with five laps left after the restart and went on to claim the win by almost a second over teammate Carl Edwards.
JGR teammates Matt Kenseth finished fifth and Kyle Busch came home in ninth, giving Gibbs four of the top-9 spots including the win. The finishes also locked down the first four places in the Chase point standings with Kenseth on top followed by Hamlin, Edwards and Busch. Kenseth held the top spot thanks to the bonus points that he started the Challenger Round with thanks to the four wins that he posted during the regular season. He holds a two-point lead over race winner Hamlin but the win automatically moved him into the Contender Round.
While the Gibbs stable left Chicagoland with smiles on their faces the same can’t be said about the defending series champion Kevin Harvick. He was running in the top-5 when on a restart on lap 135 that Jimmy Johnson after a push by Joey Logano was on the inside of him on the apron as the two approached turn one.
Neither driver wanted to lift and for Johnson he had to get back on the track and in doing so he made contact with Harvick. The contact was heavy enough that it caused a tire rub on the left rear of Harvick’s car. Harvick choose to stay out and not come down on pit road to pull out the fender and put on tires and that turned out to be a costly mistake as the tire eventually gave out putting his Chevrolet into the turn three wall with heavy damage. The damage left him with a 42nd place finish and 22 points out of the 12th and final transfer position to advance to the second round of three races.
CHASE NOTES: Ryan Newman started this season’s Chase just the way that he ended last year’s Chase by showing the kind of consistency that will allow a driver to advance through the three rounds. The Richard Childress Racing driver finished fourth and will go to New Hampshire this weekend in eighth place in the Chase standings and is 12 points ahead of the 13th place driver Jamie McMurray. Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman have all won three races at New Hampshire with Gordon leading all drivers with a driver rating of 106.7. Brad Keselowski leads all drivers with a 10.2 average finish while Jamie McMurray has the worst finishing average with 20.7 and is tied with Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. with the fewest top-10s at the track with six. McMurray is two points out of being in the top-12 followed by Paul Menard (-3), Clint Bowyer (15) and Harvick (-22).
Event: Sylvania 300
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058 mile oval, 12o of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 27, 2:00 PM
Defending Champion: Joey Logano