By AMANDA VINCENT
Sunday afternoon didn’t start out well for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. He started the MyAFibRisk.com 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., in 29th, the farthest back of the 16 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers. Matters went from bad to worse on lap two when Hamlin got caught up in an incident with A.J. Alllmendinger and went a lap down, dropping to 43rd (last place) in the running order. He recovered, though, not only getting back on the lead lap, but taking the race win, his second of the season, in the first race of the 10-race Chase.
“Coming back from a lap down, we had a fast car,” Hamlin said. “We were running under green over and over and over, and I thought we would never get back on the lead lap. Thanks to all of our partners at JGR for building a fast race car.”
Joe Gibbs Racing scored a one-two finish, as Carl Edwards finished second to his teammate. All three JGR drivers finished in the top-10. Matt Kenseth finished fifth and Kyle Busch was ninth after leading a race-high 121 laps of the 267-lap race.
Kurt Busch finished third, and Ryan Newman was fourth.
The top-three finishers were all a lap down during the first half of the race. Edwards was caught speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop just past lap 50. The resulting penalty put him a lap down. Busch suffered a tire issue on lap 87 that called for an unscheduled pit stop, also putting him a lap down.
“We fought back,” Edwards said. “We did a good job. Everybody at JGR is working together. This is cool, and awesome day for everybody, just unbelievable. Denny hung on tough at the end.”
All three drivers stayed out during a lap 122 yellow flag and took wave-arounds to get back on the lead lap. They were able to pit a few laps later when the yellow flag waved again, just before the halfway point of the race.
“Luckily, that one caution came out that allowed us to get the wave-around and get back on the lead lap,” Hamlin said. “We had a fast car and that was the most important thing.”
Kevin Harvick started on the pole, but lost the lead to Martin Truex Jr. on the first restart of the race. Truex led 39 laps before Kyle Busch took the lead for the first time on lap 46. Busch went on to dominate the first half of the race, leading 93 laps before losing the top spot to Jeff Gordon following a lap 137 caution.
“We had a pretty good M&Ms Crispy Camry the first part of the race and it got away from us a little bit,” Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens said. “Probably a second or third-place car. Certainly the second-to-last run, we fell off a little bit in (turns) one and two and then the 24 (Gordon) got around us.”
Harvick ran second to Busch for most of those 93 laps led by Busch but was the cause of the lap 137 yellow flag. Harvick and Johnson made contact that resulted in a tire rub on Harvick’s car. A few laps later, Harvick made hard impact with the wall. He headed to the garage and wound up with a 42nd-place finish.
“He didn’t leave me any space,” Johnson said of the on-track incident with Harvick. “He was pinning me down, and I had to get back up on the track. I wouldn’t say that what he did was any different than other situations I’ve been in like that. When you are in his position, you want to get the inside car in a bad angle so they have to lift. I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track, so I worked my way back up on the track.”
Harvick, though, said he was just holding his ground.
“I just held my ground, and he just slammed into the side of the door like I wasn’t even there,” Harvick said.
Gordon gave up the lead on lap 185 to begin a green-flag cycle of pit stops. When the yellow flag waved on lap 190, interrupting the cycle, Gordon pitted again, handing the lead back over to Kyle Busch and restarting sixth.
Kurt Busch took the lead with 46 laps to go and drove out to a 3.5-second lead by the time the yellow flag waved for the sixth and final time with 10 laps remaining. Busch, Gordon and Hamlin stayed out, while the other drivers on the lead lap pitted for fresh tires.
When the race restarted, Hamlin took the lead, while Gordin dropped back several spots, ultimately falling back to 14th by the finish. Edwards, who restarted seventh with four fresh tires, drove up to second.
Finishing sixth through 10th were Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola.
With the first Chase race of 2015 in the history books, JGR drivers occupy the top-four spots in the points standings. Kenseth leads the way, with Hamlin two points back in secind. Edwards and Kyle Busch are tied for third, three points out of the lead.
Harvick dropped to the bottom of the standings, sitting 16th, 43 points back.
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