After a valiant attempt to battle the rain drops and start the race as advertised on Sunday, NASCAR finally gave in and postponed the race until Monday. This is what was surprising and not surprising from the 11th running of the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
[media-credit name=”Dan Sanger” align=”alignright” width=”229″][/media-credit]Surprising: Although without fuel for a burnout, smoke still surprisingly rose from Victory Lane as the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Tony Stewart, celebrated his first win of the season with crew chief Darian Grub and his team.
This was Stewart’s 40th victory in 455 Cup races, tying him with Mark Martin for 16th on the all-time victory list. This also ended 32-race winless streak, but extended Smoke’s streak of having one win every season for the past 13 years.
“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago,” Stewart said. “We’ve had a miserable year, by our standards. But the last three weeks we’ve really started coming into it.”
“At the end you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” Stewart continued. “We didn’t do any wild burnouts or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road.”
“So, we were closer than I wanted to be,” Smoke said. “But I had a good enough car to get us there and Darian and his calls gave us the opportunity to get the lead. I was glad I saved as much as I did.”
Stewart’s win catapulted him up seven spots in the Chase point standings, moving from the ninth position to second, only seven points out of first.
Not Surprising: While driver and team owner celebrated in victory lane, it was not surprising to see the other half of Stewart-Hass Racing dynamic duo also have a good day at the office.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 US Army Medicine Chevrolet, finished eighth. Newman led twice during the race, for a total of 18 laps.
Highlighting on his hood the medical men and women of the US Army, Newman also scored his 14th top-10 finish of the season and his sixth top-10 finish in his 10 career Cup starts at Chicagoland Speedway.
Newman’s finish garnered him one step up in the Chase, moving from eighth to seventh. He is in a tie, however, with sixth place Keselowski, who has three wins to Newman’s one on the season.
Surprising: Granted that the race was delayed due to rain and decided by fuel mileage, it was still surprising the lack of impact qualifying had on the race finish. At one extreme was Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford, who not only qualified on the pole but also led off and on throughout the race only to be done in by fuel mileage but also by a penalty for being pushed by J J Yeley on the last lap. Kenseth finished 21st and fell six positions in the Chase standings to tenth.
“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 full throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas,” Kenseth said. “It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.”
On the flip side of the coin was Kevin Harvick, behind the wheel of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet, who qualified 30th only to live up to his ‘Closer’ reputation to finish second in the race. This was Harvick’s seventh top-10 finish in 11 races at Chicagoland Speedway and his 14th top-10 finish in 2011.
Harvick’s finish catapulted him into first place in the Chase standings.
“I knew that we had saved a little bit under caution and a little bit at the beginning of that run,” Harvick said of his fuel status at the end of the race. “Everybody on our Budweiser Chevrolet did a great job knowing exactly how far we could go, so good first race for us.”
Not Surprising: When it comes to fuel mileage racing, it is never surprising to see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his crew chief Steve Letarte go for broke and roll the dice. The race at Chicagoland was no different with the driver taking his No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet to a 3rd place finish.
“We worked real hard all weekend trying to be smart,” Junior said. “The car was a bit of a struggle in the middle part of the race but in that last run, we were one of the best cars on the track.”
“We started trying to save a little gas and we made it further than most,” Junior continued. “It was a good weekend for us.”
Surprising: The driver of the No. 18 Wrigley’s Doublemint Toyota and the driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet had a surprising statistic in common. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon both lost eight positions in the Chase standings due to their Chicagoland race struggles, thanks to their 22nd and 24th finishing positions respectively.
“We had a good car and kept fighting back all day long,” Busch said. “I saved as much fuel as I could but I guess it just wasn’t enough and we ran out with two to go. Just a really disappointing day.”
Gordon echoed those sentiments, although he acknowledged that not only did he qualify poorly but his car was a handful all race long.
“It was just one of those days,” Gordon said. “We were just off.”
“We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end,” Gordon continued. “Then it came down to saving fuel and we obviously didn’t save enough fuel.”
Not Surprising: In spite of burying the hatchet with his nemesis Jimmie Johnson and having a decent finish, it was not surprising that controversy continued to dog the driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger. After skirmishing with the media at last weekend’s race, Kurt Busch skirmished instead with his crew chief and team, sharing a few choice words over the radio during the race.
“We had speed in the car early, but just didn’t keep up with the track,” Busch said after the race. “We just struggled with making adjustments as the race went on.”
Not surprisingly, Busch’s crew chief Steve Addington seemed to especially take the criticism to heart, falling on the sword for the team.
“It seems like we can get our cars tightened up, but can’t free them up at all and we struggled with that,” Addington said. “I’m disappointed that we led a lot of laps and should have had a better showing with the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.”
“We just couldn’t stay on top of the race track like we needed to once the track got rubbered-in,” Addington continued. “I’m disappointed in myself.”
Surprising: It was surprising to watch the metamorphosis that took place for Brad Keselowski as he moved from the ‘Iron Man’ performance that got him into Chase contention to NASCAR’s version of Cinderella.
Keselowski, behind the wheel of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge finished the race in the fifth position. With that top-five finish, he also moved up five positions to sixth in the current Chase standings.
“Whew, an amazing day to get this Miller Lite Dodge Charger a top-five finish,” Keselowski said. “It wasn’t easy.”
“It really was a matter of trying to be patient,” Keselowski continued. “Our fuel mileage was awesome.”
“It was a good first step for us in the Chase.”
Not Surprising: With the futures of several drivers uncertain, it was not surprising to see them achieve some hopefully eye-catching finishes. Tops among those drivers who finished alongside the elite Chase contenders were Clint Bowyer, who took seventh, as well as Mark Martin with a top-10 finish and Brian Vickers with a top-15.