NASCAR: Denny Hamlin wins the opening Chase race.

September 20, 2015
Event Reports
Djordje Sugaris

In what turned out to be one of the cleanest races this season, Denny Hamlin won the first race of The Chase in the final laps of the race, by heroically returning from the early crash and making a great restart with five laps to go. The Chase opened with 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Kevin Harvick started the race from pole, followed by Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Only two drivers who started the race in top ten weren’t in the chase: Austin Dillon in fifth and Kasey Kahne in eighth. The 267 laps long race started 3:20 with the first caution flying just a minute later when Denny Hamlin lost control of his car and clipped AJ Allmendinger. Yellow flag was displayed on lap 3 and fortunately, both cars just had to pit for tire change. The race restarted on lap 7 with a three-way battle for the lead with Martin Truex Jr. taking it from Harvick. Austin Dillon climbed up to second, dropping Harvick one more spot down. Reigning Sprint Cup champion reclaimed the second on lap 15 and started closing down on Truex Jr. The top three was just tenths of a second away from each other, and by lap 25, oncoming traffic started making the battle for the lead more intense as the pack was increasing the gap over the rest of the field. However, Kyle Busch was making great progress, managing to overtake Dillon and send him down to fourth. Busch managed to overtake Harvick and went after Truex Jr with 35 laps into the race, taking over the lead on lap 47.

On lap 50, a series of green flag pit stops started with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and others pitting, as well as race leader Kyle Busch who pitted on lap 54 and returned to the lead, followed by Harvick and Logano. Carl Edwards had to serve a drive-through penalty for entering the pits too fast. Busch and Harvick were pulling away from the rest of the field, and by lap 75, the gap between Harvick and third placed Truex Jr. was more than 6 seconds. Kurt Busch made an unscheduled pit stop, while his brother was much more successful, stretching the gap to almost two seconds by lap 90 and 3.5 seconds by lap 100. In the meantime, Jeff Gordon made progress to fifth by overtaking Jimmie Johnson.

Nothing significant happened until the next series of green flag pit stops which was set off by Kevin Harvick. On lap 107, Kyle Busch pitted, returning to the lead as the cycle went through, followed by Harvick, Truex Jr. and his brother Kurt. On lap 123, the race went yellow for debris and Kyle Busch went to the pit road, as well as Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. The race restarted on lap 129, and on the same lap, Harvick took the lead, but caution came again when Austin Dillon hit the wall. The race restarted on lap 134 with Kyle Busch taking over the lead after Kevin Harvick bumped against Jimmie Johnson, causing him to lose speed. On lap 138, Harvick spun, causing the caution flag. Johnson went to the pits, and so did Dale Jr. and Harvick, whose car went to the garage for extensive repair.

On lap 144 the race restarted with Jeff Gordon in the lead and Kurt Busch on second, in front of Kyle Busch. However, the restart was put on review as Jeff Gordon might have restarted early. After reviewing the restart, race officials judged that Gordon’s questionable move was legal. On lap 185, race leader pitted, and so did other win contenders, putting Kyle Larson to the lead. However, as he pitted, Carl Edwards went on to take the lead. On lap 191, the race went yellow for debris in Turn 4. By that time, only seven drivers were on the lead lap and Martin Truex Jr. got the free pass. As the pit cycle completed, Kyle Busch returned to the lead and Harvick returned to the track, 57 laps down.

The race restarted on lap 196 with Busch brothers battling for the lead. Kyle Busch kept his lead. Jeff Gordon took over Denny Hamlin and started closing down on Carl Edwards on third, who was more than two seconds behind Busch brothers. Kurt Busch took over, and with 30 laps to go, he expanded the lead over his brother to almost three seconds. On lap 239, Carl Edwards went to the pits, followed by Truex Jr and Kyle Busch on lap 240. As Kurt Busch pitted, Denny Hamlin went to the lead, but Kurt returned to the lead when the cycle completed and Jeff Gordon progressed to second, pushing Kyle Busch down.

Fifth caution flew for debris with 10 laps to go after Matt DiBenedetto rode against the wall, leaving debris on the track. Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon decided to stay, whereas Kyle Busch went from third into the pits, leaving Denny Hamlin to take the third and dropping to fifth. The race restarted with five laps to go and Denny Hamlin took the lead, followed by Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch who dropped to third. Hamlin maintained the lead in the following laps and won ahead of Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth in top five. Joey Logano was sixth, followed by Kyle Larson who didn’t qualify for The Chase. Brad Keselowski was 8th, followed by Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola. Jimmie Johnson was eleventh, in front of Dale Jr, Martin Truex Jr, and quite disappointingly, Jeff Gordon. The win was heroic for Hamlin who suffered an early crash with Allmendinger. After the race, there’s been a heated debate between Harvick and Johnson over a lap 134 restart which ultimately sent Harvick to the garage and the last spot in The Chase table, together with McMurray, Menard and Bowyer who are also in the red zone.

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