By Jared Turner
- This Chase Is Going To Surprise
Who really expected Denny Hamlin, not even two weeks removed from suffering a torn ACL in a game of pickup basketball, to win the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Moreover, who expected Hamlin to win at Chicagoland after spinning on the race’s second lap, losing a lap and dropping all the way to the rear of the field? The short answer to both: Virtually no one. Yet there was Hamlin, standing in Victory Lane at the conclusion of Sunday’s race. What’s the lesson to be learned in all this? Quite simply, we’re in the Chase now, and that means the unpredictable can and will happen. It certainly did on Sunday, and we’re just getting started.
2. Sometimes It Pays To Gamble
When Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin opted to remain on track under the race’s final caution with less than 10 laps to go, many observers rightfully questioned the strategy. After all, new tires almost always rule in late-race situations, and it was natural to expect that none of the three gamblers would be able to hold off those behind them on fresh rubber, once the race restarted with five laps to go. While Gordon faded to 14th and Busch slipped to third, Hamlin beat the odds by using a tremendous restart to get out front and then holding off second-place finisher Carl Edwards, who had fresher rubber but not enough time to catch the No. 11 car.
3. Gordon Won’t Go Quietly
While there’s no denying the fact that Jeff Gordon’s last full season of Sprint Cup Series competition has been mostly a disappointment, one would be naïve to assume the four-time champion isn’t going to be a factor in the Chase. Case in point, Sunday’s showdown at Chicagoland, where the Hendrick Motorsports driver led 41 laps and lined up second for the final restart with five laps to go before quickly falling into the clutches of those with fresher tires. The end result notwithstanding, Gordon looked as racy on Sunday as he has in months, and it’s a good sign that he is poised to at least advance out of the opening Chase round.
4. The Gibbs Bunch Is Still Crushing
Coming into Chicagoland, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had won eight of the past 11 races. With Denny Hamlin’s run on Sunday, now make it nine out of 12. Just as important, the Gibbs boys now account for each of the top four spots in the Chase standings heading into Race No. 2 of the opening Chase round. While Hamlin is the only driver who has clinched a berth in the next round, don’t be surprised if all three of his JGR teammates end up advancing right along with him. The fact is that the organization owned by legendary Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is on fire right now, and there doesn’t appear to be any sign of that changing anytime soon.
5. Harvick Is In A Precarious Spot
With his accident and resulting 42nd-place finish at Chicagoland, Kevin Harvick faces a major test in his quest to repeat as Sprint Cup Series champion. Although winning either of the next two races would enable him to advance to next round of the Chase, getting to Victory Lane is going to be no small task – especially when considering the Stewart-Haas Racing driver hasn’t been there since the season’s fourth race. It also bears noting that over the course of his lengthy career, Harvick has combined for just a single win at New Hampshire and Dover, the two remaining tracks in the Challenger Round. Of course, it’s possible that Harvick could still advance in the Chase without winning.