Denny Hamlin came into this weekend’s opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, with pressure on his shoulders. Coming off a torn ACL for the second time in his career, he qualified 29th and was behind the eight-ball early on in the weekend. Fast forward to the race, the myAfibRisk.com 400, and Hamlin spins out on lap two of 267 to bring out the first caution of the race. The No. 11 team opted to leave Hamlin out on the racetrack on flat tires, not pitting, and ended up falling behind a lap early on in the race.
With that being said, would you believe me if I told you that Denny Hamlin and that No. 11 car ended up in victory lane at the end of the day and punched their ticket to the next round of the Chase? Well, believe me when I say that he did just that.
A late-race phantom debris caution with nine laps remaining set up a final restart. Hamlin restarted third on the inside, made it three-wide underneath Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, cleared those two drivers and drove off into the sunset with a torn ACL, chip on his shoulder and ended up with a trophy in victory lane.
“Luckily, that one caution [for debris on lap 122] 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. We stretched out there at the end even with no tires [a few drivers opted to pit as Hamlin, Gordon and Busch stayed out]. I’m proud of this effort. The pit crew did a phenomenal job again and now we’re looking forward to the next round.”
Hamlin’s JGR teammates faired pretty well at Chicago. Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who all led laps along with Hamlin, came home second, fifth and ninth, respectively, and hold the top four spots in the points standings entering the second race of the first round. Joe Gibbs Racing has been the class of the field all season, along with one more driver, defending champion Kevin Harvick.
Harvick had a rough afternoon at the track that he has won at twice. After starting on the pole and leading 10 laps, he ended up coming home 42nd, 57 laps down, and fell to dead last (16th) in the points standings. He was 22 points behind the cutoff for 12th place – the transfer point into the next round. So what happened?
On lap 135, Harvick was leading when a restart occurred. Joey Logano was third in line on the inside lane, behind Jimmie Johnson and the No. 4. Logano started pushing Johnson, who wiggled and then regained control of his No. 48 Chevrolet. At this point in time, Johnson was on the apron, underneath the white line, beside Harvick, trying to get back into the racing groove. In doing this, Johnson and Harvick made contact, and Harvick’s left rear tire began smoking. Three laps later, Harvick was in the wall with major damage on the rear, stemming from the contact with the six-time champion that caused a flat tire. After many repairs, the No. 4 was back on the track.
Driving down pit road, he pointed out the window to the No. 48 pit stall.
“Tell me when that 48 is near me on the track,” Harvick told his spotter, Tim Fedewa.
But that was not the end of things. Not even close.
Kevin Harvick is known as a hot-tempered driver, who is very passionate but can let his emotions sometimes get the best of him. After the race, he got out of his car, did an interview with NBCSN, and went back to his motorhome in the driver parking lot. NBC smartly kept a camera on Harvick. About five minutes later, Johnson was waiting outside the motorhome in his firesuit with Harvick’s manager, Josh Jones.
Emerging from his motorhome in sunglasses and casual clothes, Harvick smirked before punching Johnson square in the shoulder. As Harvick was restrained by his manager, Johnson walked away shaking his head.
So what does all of this mean? Simply, it means that Harvick needs to win at one of these next two tracks in order to propel himself into the next round of the playoffs or rely on other drivers losing a significant amount of points and himself gaining them. What does this mean for Johnson? It means that he should sleep with one eye open, and that if Harvick is near Johnson on the track, you know what is probably going to happen. It is the playoffs. Tensions are high. Everything is on the line. Did Johnson do it on purpose? Probably not. But could it have been avoided? Probably.
“I got a pretty good restart, and obviously, the 22 and 48 got a good run, and I just held my line and the 48 just slammed into the side of my door,” Harvick said of the incident. “That was pretty much it.”
When he was asked how he would approach these next two weeks, he had a one word answer: “win.”
Johnson had a different outlook on the situation.
“He was pinning me down, and I’ve got to get back up on the track,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say that what he did is any different than other situations I’ve been in like that. When you’re in Kevin’s situation, you want to give that inside car a bad angle, so they’ve got to lift. I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track. So I worked my way back onto the track. I pulled down inside of him, and then we were door-to-door, and then, as I moved back into the racing groove, that’s when we touched door-to-door, tire-to-tire.”
As for the other Chase drivers, here is a quick rundown of how they ran and their outlook heading into the rest of this round.
Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Harvick would be the bottom four eliminated if the round ended today. We know how Harvick ran, but the one, 15 and 27 cars were laps down and never were competitive whatsoever. The JGR cars all led laps and, barring a situation like Harvick’s, will be fine. The Hendrick cars finished 11th, 12th and 14th (Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon) and are seventh, 10th and 12th in the standings. That is a bit misleading, though, because Gordon had his best run of the season on Sunday. If it were not for the final restart and him getting loose/shuffled back, he would’ve gotten a top five. He led many laps.
Ryan Newman restarted 14th with five laps to go and somehow, came home fourth and just keeps being consistently good in the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. (11th in standings) led laps early, but fell off and finished 13th, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski finished sixth and eighth, respectively and Kurt Busch, who had a win taken away from him for the second time this year due to a phantom debris caution, came home third.
Also, Kyle Busch won the Xfinity Series race and 17 year-old John Hunter Nemechek won the Camping World Truck Series races this weekend. Those points battled have remained constant, with Chris Buescher and Erik Jones holding serve atop those series standings over Chase Elliott and Matt Crafton, respectively.
Next weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Sylvania 300. Kevin Harvick has one career win at NHMS, and he will be out for blood all weekend long. He is a safe bet to contend, but will he be able to win? You have to think that 10 runner up finishes will turn into wins sometime soon.
One race in, and there is already an abundance of storylines to talk about and to look for heading into the remainder of the season. Playoffs in NASCAR? Yup, they exist. And ever since they were implemented in 2004, they never seem to disappoint.