Round 1 of the Chase Goes to Tony Stewart

Tough Times at Chicagoland for Hamlin

Denny Hamlin, last year's Championship contender at Homestead-Miami Speedway, had a fast car at Chicagoland but two flat tires cost him three laps and left him with a 31st-place finish. He’s already 41 points behind in the Chase nearly a full race behind the leader and practically out of contention (photo courtesy: Rainier Erhardt, GETTY IMAGES SPORT)

Winning Monday at Chicagoland to open the Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup was both redemptive and a major achievement for Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

It gave Stewart a huge jump in the points – ninth to second, seven points behind leader Kevin Harvick – as he pursues a third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Stewart’s Championships in 2002 and 2005 at Homestead-Miami Speedway make him the only driver to win NASCAR’s biggest prize in both the pre-Chase and Chase era. This year, Homestead-Miami Speedway will crown NASCAR’s Champions for the 10th consecutive year during Ford Championship Weekend. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

The victory preserved “Smoke’s” record of at least one win in each of the 13 seasons as a driver in NASCAR’s premier series. His 40th win at 40 years of age matched fan favorite Mark Martin for 16th on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.

This was the first victory of the 2011 season for Stewart after heavy rain forced NASCAR to postpone the race a day. 

“I couldn’t pick a better weekend to get the first win of the year than here in Chicago,” said Stewart.  “We’ve had a miserable year but the last three weeks we really started to improve. Neither Darian or I even once thought that we had as good as car as we needed to win but we ran pretty solid.”

NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. who just posted his fourth top-10 finish in the past 11 races said proudly after this third place finish, “The hardest we can work is the best we can work.”

Earnhardt Jr. had his best showing since he was second at Kansas 14 weeks ago. The strong result pushed him from 10th to fifth in the standings.

''Obviously we gained a lot of spots there at the end with guys that were short of fuel,'' said Earnhardt, ''but we were running really well at the end.''

Stewart led 35 laps in Monday’s race.  Kurt Busch led 64 laps for the race high and finished sixth, right behind Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski who finished in fifth.  Carl Edwards brought home a fourth-place result. Edwards was a popular preseason pick to unseat five-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson this fall when NASCAR crowns a Champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Second-place finisher, Harvick, now sits at the top of the points standings with Stewart just seven points behind in second place.  Edwards is in third, followed by Kurt Busch and Earnhardt Jr. in fourth and fifth restively.

But there are likely some drivers wondering if Chicago didn't crush their title chances.

While Stewart was able to stretch his gas to the finish - ironic, since he ran out of gas while leading with one lap to go in last year's Chase opener at New Hampshire - at least five Chase drivers ran their tanks dry in the closing laps.

Five-time defending series champion Johnson, points leader Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon were among the drivers who ran out of gas on the last lap, and all plummeted in the final finishing order.

Harvick, who started the race tied with Busch for the points lead, held on for second after his crew chief told him to run wide open and not worry about fuel.

''When he turned me loose, I probably should have just listened to him, I was really gun shy,'' said Harvick, who called the closing laps ''nerve-racking.''

Johnson wound up 10th, and dropped two spots to eighth in the standings.

''I really felt like I had done enough,'' Johnson said. ''I don't know what I did so desperately wrong.''

Kenseth led four times for 46 laps, had to save gas at the end and still ran out. Even worse, because J.J Yeley pushed him across the finish line - apparently in eighth-place - NASCAR ruled the last-lap assistance was illegal and dropped Kenseth to 21st in the final running order.

''I don't know what to do about the fuel mileage,'' said Kenseth, the polesitter, who dropped six spots in the standings to 10th.

''It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half throttle and can't floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.''

Kyle Busch, who began the day tied with Harvick for the points lead, ran out of gas and finish 22nd. He's now ninth in points.

''I saved as much fuel as I could, but I guess it just wasn't enough and we ran out with two to go,'' said Busch. ''Just really disappointing day.''

Same for Gordon, who rallied back into the top 10 from an early tire issue, only to run out of gas and finish 24th. He dropped from third in points to 11th.

''It was definitely not the race we wanted to start the Chase off with,'' Gordon said. ''We're going to fight like crazy these next nine races and we could still get it done.''

Hardest hit on Monday, though, was last year’s Championship runner-up Denny Hamlin. He used the second wild-card spot to make it into the Chase and had the worst day of the 12 Chase contending drivers.

A vibration forced him to pit out of sequence, which dropped him a lap down from the leaders. He could never make it back, and a flat tire later sealed his 31st-place finish.

A year after nearly ending Johnson's run, Hamlin is probably now out of title contention and left the track without commenting. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

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