Racing under the Chicagoland lights was not expected but Mother Nature threw a curve ball in the plans for the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
It took just into Monday morning to decide a winner, but Matt Kenseth once again prevails on a mile and a half track. Kenseth took a monster push from Kevin Harvick to propel him into the lead on the final restart and that put him into position to win the first Chase race of the 2013 season.
Kenseth looked poised to win all night, even when he was shuffled back in the field. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota firmly believed in his team as he has all year long and they won for the sixth time since he came onboard at the start of the 2013 season. As I noted in my Chase prediction article, Kenseth is my pick to win the championship this year and needed to kick the off the first of the ten races the right way by taking the win.
Since Chicagoland has been the opening race for the “Chase”, the winner of the first race has been lucky enough to go on to hoist the Sprint Cup for the Championship. Both Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski won Chicagoland to start their championship bids.
The drama filled 2013 season has continued with a rash of engine failures. I was a bit surprised to see the amount of problems that plagued the Chase drivers with the dreaded failures and those with punctured tires. Perhaps the heat cycle of the engines might have been the culprit.
Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr suffered engine failures. An ill-timed flat tire doomed Jeff Gordon’s bid for a win, but not surprisingly, Gordon and company recovered to finish 6th.
I was not surprised at all to see the Gibbs cars upfront today. They have flat out dominated the mile and a half tracks this year and both Kyle Busch and Kenseth appear to be the favorites to win the title. With four more mile and a half tracks left, I think we will see a duel between the two of them. So do not be surprised if they win two of those four remaining tracks.
I expect that both of them will be front runners at Talladega, the real problem track for many of the Chase drivers. If they can keep it clean and avoid the one mulligan race (throw away race that seemingly every Chase driver gets each year), then they will be in a class of their own heading to Homestead.
It was fun to watch the different strategies used to put drivers into contention to win the race. I thought Kenseth was done once Kyle Busch was in clean air, but that final caution really doomed Busch. Harvick was pretty mad at the 18 for not catching up to the pace car in time, so that gave him extra motivation to get Kenseth moving. Without that push, Kenseth probably would not have been able to pass Busch and we might be celebrating another Busch victory instead at Chicagoland - he did grab the Truck and Nationwide wins and was going for the triple!
Kenseth’s sixth career win is the most wins he has ever had in the previous 13 years he has competed in the premier NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons. This win gives him an eight point lead over teammate Kyle Busch. Johnson and Harvick are 11 and 15 points back, and fifth place Kurt Busch is 23 points back. The bonus points are really separating the field as the top three went in with the most wins and hold onto those top spots.
It is important for Kenseth to start off strong. He has struggled at Loudon with an average finish of 13.8 and even though he finished 9th in the first race at New Hampshire this year, he struggled to crack the top 10. Kenseth will need another super strategy formula from crew chief Jason Ratcliff to maintain a steady run in the Chase and not have to use one of the aforementioned “mulligan races” at a simple track such as Loudon.
The chase has given us a great first race and there will be nine more that will give the fans exactly what they want!