JOLIET, Ill. – Matt Kenseth pulled away from teammate Kyle Busch to win the opening race in the Chase for Sprint Cup championship.
The steely win by the top seed in the Chase helped restore a sense of normalcy at the end of a week that saw NASCAR fighting the biggest credibility crisis in its history.
Now the sport waits to see if its fans are still angry that several teams manipulated the race finish at Richmond. The ensuing scandal has raised questions about NASCAR’s integrity that winning team owner Joe Gibbs said he’s seen before in sports.
“I’ve seen things like that happen on the NFL side,” said Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winning coach with the Washington Redskins. “We tried to do the best we could in handling it, and hopefully we’ve got this behind us with the race. We all love our sport and nobody wants anything that would hurt or harm it or disappoint people.”
Kenseth slid into Chicago under the radar as all the attention centered squarely on NASCAR’s investigation into the schemes of at least three teams to alter the outcome of the previous week.
It led to severe sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing, and Martin Truex Jr. was replaced by Ryan Newman in the Chase field. NASCAR continued to review incidents long after cars began to practice for Sunday’s race. Chairman Brian France took the unprecedented step of expanding the field to 13 drivers to add Jeff Gordon.
Then France held an ethics meeting for teams on the eve of the opening race to outline new “rules of the road,” demanding drivers give 100 percent going forward and banning any attempts to artificially affect the outcome of races.
Kenseth said he was eager to help NASCAR move on.
“I think the important thing is it’s behind us,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s pretty clear what everybody expects and the things we should do or not do, though a lot of that is pretty obvious, anyway. Hopefully we can move on because I think it’s been a tough week – not only for some of the teams involved, but I think it’s also been a tough week for NASCAR.”
A strong opener to the 10-race Chase would have gone a long way, but rain made it a difficult day.
The start was delayed by mist for almost 90 minutes. Once the race did go off, it made it almost to the halfway point before the sky opened up again. In all, there were two stoppages totaling 6 hours, 30 minutes and Kenseth didn’t cross the finish line until early Monday morning.
It was worth the wait when he passed Busch on a restart with 27 laps remaining – in part because of a push from Kevin Harvick – then led Busch across the finish line for a 1-2 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota.
He’ll take an eight-point lead over Busch into next week’s race at New Hampshire.
That’s bad news for the rest of the Chase field: JGR drivers have won six of the seven races so far this season on 1.5-mile tracks, and four of the nine remaining races in the Chase are tracks covering the same distance.
Kenseth, a six-time winner this season, has four wins on 1.5-mile tracks.
“We’re excited about that,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. “I think our program has been pretty solid all the way around.”
This latest victory denied Busch a weekend sweep yet again. He’d won the Truck and Nationwide Series races this weekend, only to come up short in the main event. The same thing happened last month at Bristol, where Busch won the first two legs of the trifecta only to be denied the sweep by Kenseth.
“Oh, yeah. I watched it slip right away,” Busch said. “Nothing you can do about it. Certainly it would be nice if we could have won and brought home a trifecta. It was going to be cool.”
Harvick finished third, Kurt Busch was fourth and teammates Jimmie Johnson and Gordon were fourth and fifth as Chevrolet took spots three through six and Chase drivers swept the top six spots.
Gordon, who only learned he made the Chase 48 hours before the race, was in great shape until he got a flat tire that forced him to pit and claw his way back for his finish.
“That was an incredible accomplishment. It just shows how much fight this team has in them. They just never gave up,” he said. “To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go – I know we were 18th on one of those last restarts – to be able to come up through there and get sixth, and have a shot at top-five, was a lot of fun. That’s what we needed to get this thing started off right.”
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who failed to qualify for the Chase this year, was seventh. Keselowski was the defending race winner.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was eighth.
Clint Bowyer, the driver who first triggered all the trouble last week at Richmond when he spun with seven laps to go in an effort to help teammate Truex make the Chase, finished ninth. Newman was 10th, Carl Edwards 11th and Kasey Kahne 12th.
Chase driver Greg Biffle was 16th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (35th) and Joey Logano (37th) had the worst nights of the Chase drivers as both failed to finish because of engine issues.
“I am pretty angry. That was such as fast race car we had,” said Logano, the pole-sitter. “Unfortunately the motor blew up. You have these every once in a while. It is a bummer to have it in the Chase when you are running for a championship.”