Sunday proved that while skill is certainly needed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a lot of luck is needed, too.
Martin Truex Jr., who suffered through bad luck throughout this season, has now won two of the last three races and is the first driver to advance to the Round of 12. In his first 12 years of racing in the Series, Truex had three wins. With nine races remaining in the season, he’s already doubled his career win total this season.
For the final restart, Truex started in fourth after a spit stop for tires, and he capitalized on the fresh rubber in overtime.
“The racing gods want to make it difficult on us,” said Truex. “Man, this feels good. I’m a lucky guy to be able to drive this black 78.”
Rookie Ryan Blaney was the first of three drivers to not pit on the last caution and was looking for his first victory in the Series.
“You never know,” said Blaney of the decision to stay out and not pit. “Those guys were on me so fast. We had a really good car all day. We started way back in the field and made it up there pretty quickly. We got our car decent at the end. We gambled and I prefer to do that. I prefer to take a gamble to stay out and try to hold those guys off.”
While Blaney’s gamble didn’t pay off in terms of his first win, he still finished fourth, which tied his career-best Sprint Cup finish at Michigan in August.
"We're in a position where we can take risks like that," said Blaney. "We're not in the Chase. We can stay out. I knew it was going to be tough when only a couple cars stayed out with us. We needed about two or three more for it to be a realistic shot."
The other rookie looking for his first win on Sunday was Chase Elliott. Elliott, who led 75 laps, was leading when the final caution was called and elected to pit. Blaney and two other drivers stayed out and Truex Jr. beat Elliott off pit road, causing Elliott to restart from the third row.
Elliott’s third-place finish, while disappointing, was still an encouraging sign for the rookie. This marked his second Top-Five finish in the last four races and his eighth of the season. His 75 laps led were the most ever in his Sprint Cup career.
“I expected it. We've all watched this stuff long enough, we know these races don't go green that long typically,” said Elliott. “We know that we see late-race cautions way more often than not. That's a part of racing from short-track racing all the way up to this stuff. You just got to be ready for it, embrace it when it happens, suck it up and try to figure out how to make it happen after it does.”
The good news for Elliott is his third-place finish has him slotted sixth in the Chase standings. As one of four drivers without bonus points to begin the Chase, Elliott has put himself in a great position to advance to the Round of 12.
Two former champions, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, are two drivers that came away from Chicago feeling like they missed out on a big opportunity.
Johnson led a race-high 118 laps and was looking to at least finish in the Top Five when he was caught speeding on pit road during the No. 48’s last scheduled green flag pit stop.
"I'm making adjustments and I was dumbfounded that happened," said Johnson. "You can't argue it. Maybe a mistake on our part somewhere, definitely a mistake on my side, but I by no way shape or form thought that I was speeding. I was probably the slowest down pit road all day just to try to avoid it and got nailed.”
Johnson spent the last 35 laps trying to make up for his mistake and finished 12th.
Kevin Harvick was also at the mercy of NASCAR officials on Sunday after an unapproved body modification sent him to the back of the field. Harvick charged through the field and was able to get into the Top 10. However, an untimely caution while Harvick was on pit road ended up costing him, as he went a lap down Despite having a fast car all day, Harvick was unable to find a caution while in the lucky dog spot and couldn’t get back on the lead lap. Harvick finished 20th, his third worst finish of the season and now sits 14th in the Chase.
Harvick, who finished outside the Top 15 just once in the first five months of the season and led the driver standings for the majority of the year, now faces his biggest challenge. As the Series shifts to New Hampshire, both Johnson and Harvick will try to bounce back from their disappointing start to the Chase while Blaney and Elliott look to build off their success from Chicago.
While Truex Jr. is guaranteed a spot in the Round of 12, he’s still motivated for the next two races.
“We have two weeks now to just try to keep the momentum going,” said Truex. Jr. “We have no pressure on us. Hopefully we'll be able to get a couple more trophies and then get ready for round two.”
The Chase returns to Kansas Speedway this October. Tickets are on sale now for both the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the inaugural Chase for the NASCAR XFINITY Series and can be purchased by calling 866.460.7223 or logging on to www.kansasspeedway.com for the Hollywood Casino 400, the fifth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on Oct. 16, the Kansas Lottery 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race on Oct. 15, and the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season finale on Oct. 14.
General parking is always free at Kansas Speedway and fans can bring in one 14x14x14-inch soft-sided cooler with their favorite food and beverages.
Fans can follow Kansas Speedway on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KansasSpeedway or follow us on Twitter (@kansasspeedway).