After a weather delay of almost 24 hours, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup received the green flag Monday at Chicagoland Speedway race No. 1 of 10 that will decide this years champion.
Weather was much of the story all weekend. Teams arrived into the Chicago area to unseasonably cool conditions on Friday that transitioned into rain showers on Sunday, postponing a Chase race for the first time since its inception in 2004.
Race day provided a fast, but green race track as heavy showers washed away the rubber that had built into the tracks surface during the weekend. Despite the tricky track conditions, it became clear early that track position and fuel strategy would be keys.
Team Penske stepped-up to the challenge as Brad Keselowski finished fifth and teammate Kurt Busch was sixth on a day where eight Chase-eligible drivers finished in the top 10 including the top six.
Long green-flag runs dominated the day with only six cautions slowing the action for 25 laps. In particular, the last 50 laps were run under green which just happened to be right on the fuel window. Some teams, using a variety of strategies, made it to the checkered flag. Others miscalculated slightly and came up short.
Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger R/T) entered the first Chase race as the hottest driver on circuit, but a greenhorn when it comes to NASCAR playoff racing. A three-time Sprint Cup winner this season, Keselowski qualified sixth in his Miller Lite Dodge, but the teams race-day setup wasnt to his liking. Expecting a tight, cool race track, Keselowskis Dodge started loose forcing crew chief Paul Wolfe to methodically tune to his drivers liking.
I knew that I had a fast race car; it really was a matter of trying to be patient and keep working on this Blue Deuce, said Keselowski, who vaulted five positions to sixth in the Sprint Cup driver standings heading to Loudon next weekend. Paul did an amazing job. Thats what makes a good race team. We hung in there and battled and battled all day. We tried some different strategy, got moved to the back, but kept plugging away and got fifth out of it.
A top-12 car most of the race, Keselowskis day became very interesting on lap 162 when crew chief Paul Wolfe decided not to pit under caution. The strategy gained 11 positions and gave Keselowski the lead. With only 12 laps on his tires, the clean air definitely helped the handling of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, but left the Penske Racing driver off sequence for pit stops. He had to make a green-flag stop which left him 21st, but two cautions in the last 62 laps provided the opportunity to overcome the deficit. He was able to pit with the leaders during the sixth caution and was among the group that managed to conserve enough fuel to make it the final 53 laps to the checkered flag.
With drivers trying an array of tactics, the last 20 laps was the chess match between running fast and saving fuel. Manage both and a top-10 finish was predictable. Some made it. Some didnt.
Lightning struck for the Dodge Boys just after the white-flag flew on lap 266 when Chase drivers Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth all had fuel woes. As the group ran out of fuel, the two Dodge drivers drove by, gaining four spots. Keselowski finished fifth and is sixth in the Chase standings, 14 points behind the leader.
It was great Dodge horsepower at the beginning of the race that helped Kurt lead a bunch of laps, and then great Dodge fuel mileage at the end of the race to be able to come home without running out of gas, said Penske Racings director of competition Travis Geisler. We were able to take advantage of some guys who had poor fuel economy which was the key. Well go on to Loudon and try to get some good finishes out of it.
Kurt Busch (No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger R/T) continued his quest for a second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship with a workman-like performance. The 2004 champion qualified his No. 22 Dodge Charger R/T in third position and was a factor the entire race. Busch was a solid fixture inside the top 10 all afternoon. It wasnt until lap 239 of the 267-lap contest that Busch ran a race-low of 12th.
Buschs afternoon looked like he was the driver to beat when he took the lead on Lap 41 after the races first caution. Running up front in clean air, Busch would lead the next 63 laps and was clearly the class of the field.
It was a good points day for our Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, said Busch. We had speed in the car early, but just didnt keep up with the track. We were a top 10 car all day. We led a bunch of laps early. We just struggled with making adjustments as the race went on.
Mid-race handling issues proved troublesome for Busch. As the laps were winding down, Buschs No. 22 Dodge got tighter as the track rubbered-in and he began to lose the performance advantage he had demonstrated during the first half of the race. Busch was eighth for the restart on Lap 217 after the sixth caution. The tight condition saw him slip to 12th by Lap 239, but fuel mileage would soon become a factor.
The key for us late in the race was fuel mileage, said Busch. I knew that we were short. A lot of guys were short. I told Steve to pack it full of fuel and that I would do the rest. To get a sixth-place finish to start the Chase is a good step. We still want those race wins.
Busch gained three positions in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Hes currently fourth, 11 points behind the leader, Kevin Harvick.
Robby Gordon (No. 7 SPEED Energy Dodge Charger R/T) qualified his SPEED Energy Dodge Charger R/T 37th. Making his 11th-career Chicagoland start, Gordon raced for 163 laps before retiring with a vibration issue. He finished 39th.
Brad Keselowski (No. 22 Discount Tire Challenger R/T) took Dodge to victory lane for the third time this season in Nationwide Series competition, winning Saturdays Dollar General 300 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Keselowski was dominant in victory, leading 158 of the 200 scheduled laps including the final 27. The 2010 series champion flexed his Dodge muscles early and often at the 1.5-mile oval.
Gaining the race lead for the first time on lap two, Keselowski put the hammer down and pulled away from the 43 car field, extending his lead to nearly eight seconds.
A bit atypical for 1.5-mile tracks, long green-flag runs dominated the day. Only three cautions for 11 laps slowed the 200-lap event. The last 131 laps were run under green-flag racing.
We had a strong Discount Tire Dodge today. Keselowski said after capturing his 15th career NASCAR Nationwide Series win. I thought that it was going to come down to Carl and us. Im not quite sure what happened to Carl. He was certainly one of the cars to beat. We were able to just execute on pit road and have good stops with a fast racecar. It truly is a team sport. Today was a team victory. Good strategy. Good execution. Fast car. We didnt make any mistakes and a lot of times thats what this sport is about. It was a really strong showing here today. Im glad to get the win.
Crew chief Todd Gordon had a somewhat relaxed afternoon atop the No. 22 team pit box. After Keselowski qualified his Dodge on the outside pole, clean air and solid pit stops were all his driver needed to reach victory lane.
Fortunately, today, the race kind of fell out where it made sense, Gordon said. You look at the race and you try and plan the strategy and see what happens. The race unfolded pretty close today. The pit crew did a good job. Fuel becomes a strategy with the long green-flag runs. I kind of played the balance between track position and fuel. A couple of times, we werent full, but you have to maintain clean air because these new splitter cars are all about clean air.
Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Dodge Challenger R/T) returned to the drivers seat for the first time since July and recorded a career-best Nationwide Series finish of fifth.
After a pit road violation for an uncontrolled tire during the races second caution on lap 47, Hornish restarted 23rd and methodically worked his way through the field in his Dodge Challenger.
Im really happy for Penske Racing, said Hornish. I knew it was going to be hard to catch Brad (Keselowski) as far out front as he was. Our Alliance Truck Parts Dodge wasnt great to start, but we were able to make it better all race. We ran into the one hiccup early in the race when we had a pit road penalty for the tire violation and that set us back. But after that, we got faster and faster all day.
Hornish cracked the top 10 on lap 72 and was in the top five by Lap 130. He remained in the top 10 over the final 120 laps.
As far out front as Brad was, I could see him, but it was about half-a-straightaway. We had the second issue in the pits on that last stop, but our car was strong enough to drive up through traffic and get a top-five finish. All and all, the Alliance Truck Parts Dodge was good once we got it figured out. We were really fast there from about lap 120 on. We just didnt have enough there at the end.