JOLIET, Ill. — Matt Kenseth restored order to a chaotic week for NASCAR with a steely victory over teammate Kyle Busch in the opening race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The top seed at the start of the Chase, Kenseth slid into Chicagoland Speedway under the radar as all the attention centered squarely on NASCAR’s investigation into the manipulation attempts of at least three teams to alter the outcome at Richmond the previous week.
It led to severe sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing, Martin Truex Jr. was replaced by Ryan Newman in the Chase field, and after NASCAR continued to review incidents long after cars began to practice for Sunday’s race, NASCAR chairman Brian France took the unprecedented step of expanding the field to 13 drivers to add Jeff Gordon.
Then he held an ethics meeting for teams on the eve of the opening race to outline new “rules of the road,” demanding drivers give 100 percent going forward and banning any attempts to artificially affect the outcome of races as France sought to restore the integrity of NASCAR.
A strong opener to the 10-race Chase would go a long way, but rain made for another bad day for NASCAR.
The start was delayed by mist for almost 90 minutes. Once the race began, it made it almost to the halfway point before the sky opened up again. In all, there were two stoppages totaling six hours, 30 minutes and Kenseth didn’t cross the finish line until early Monday morning.
It was worth the wait, though.
He passed Busch on a restart with 27 laps remaining — in part because of a push from Kevin Harvick — then led Busch across the finish line for a 1-2 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota.
It’s bad news for the rest of the Chase field: JGR drivers have won six of the seven races so far this season on 1.5-mile tracks, and four of the nine remaining races in the Chase are tracks covering the same distance.
Kenseth, a six-time winner this season, has four wins on 1.5-mile tracks.
This latest victory denied Busch a weekend sweep yet again. He’d won the Truck race and Nationwide Series race this weekend, only to come up short in the main event. The same thing happened last month at Bristol, where Busch won the first two legs of the trifecta only to be denied the sweep by Kenseth.
Harvick finished third, Kurt Busch was fourth and teammates Jimmie Johnson and Gordon were fourth and fifth as Chevrolet took spots three through six and Chase drivers swept the top six spots.
Gordon, who only learned he made the Chase 48 hours before the race, was in great shape until he got a flat tire that forced him to pit and claw his way back for his finish.
“That was an incredible accomplishment. It just shows how much fight this team has in them. They just never gave up,” he said. “To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go — I know we were 18th on one of those last restarts — to be able to come up through there and get sixth, and have a shot at top-five, was a lot of fun. That’s what we needed to get this thing started off right.”
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who failed to qualify for the Chase this year, was seventh. Keselowski was the defending race winner.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., was eighth.
Clint Bowyer, the driver who first triggered all the trouble last week at Richmond when he spun with seven laps to go in an effort to help teammate Truex make the Chase, finished ninth. Newman was 10th, Carl Edwards 11th and Kasey Kahne 12th.
Chase driver Greg Biffle was 16th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (35th) and Joey Logano (37th) had the worst nights of the Chase drivers as both failed to finish because of engine issues.
“I am pretty angry. That was such as fast race car we had,” said Logano, the pole-sitter. “Unfortunately the motor blew up. You have these every once in a while. It is a bummer to have it in the Chase when you are running for a championship.”
Joe Gibbs Racing has won six of the seven 1.5-mile races this season.