Today's Geico 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway signaled the beginning of the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Denny Hamlin began the day with a slim three-point lead over Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. After today's race, the championship standings were shuffled. Some drivers rose to the occasion, while others faltered amidst the racing action. Two familiar faces dominated for much of the day, with their fellow competitors trying to play catch-up. In the end, only one driver was able to hoist the trophy in Victory Lane. Here's a quick look at how each Chase driver fared in Joliet, Illinois.
After spending much of the afternoon trying to chase down Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski was able to pass the five-time champion during the final round of green-flag pit stops. The question was whether or not he did so legally. Chad Knaus and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports #48 team made an appeal to NASCAR, saying that Keselowski had entered the racing groove too quickly upon exiting the pit road. However, NASCAR looked at the tape and declared that Keselowski had not done anything illegal. All told, Keselowski led a total of 76 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season. With the win, Keselowski shot to the top of the standings, and he now holds a three-point lead over this guy...
Jimmie Johnson was not able to catch Keselowski over the final run, but he coasted to a runner-up finish. Johnson had the dominant car for much of the race, leading for a total of 172 laps. In doing so, Johnson was able to capitalize on his start at the front of the field, and he remains in an excellent position to contend for his sixth title. You can't win the Chase in the opening race, but you can certainly put yourself in a hole with a bad result. Johnson was able to avoid trouble and he now leaves Chicagoland in the same position where he began.
Johnson's Hendrick teammate was able to post a solid top-five run in today's Geico 400. Kahne did not lead any laps during the event, but he ran inside the top ten for basically the entire race and avoided trouble. Kahne, of course, entered the race as one of the two wild card seeds. However, his strong run today proves that this race team should not be overlooked. He will be a contender in Loudon, the site of his last victory in July.
The defending series champion put together a solid run and posted a sixth-place finish. He was also able to lead three laps and earn what could become a crucial bonus point in the championship standings. Although he was never able to directly challenge Johnson or Keselowski at the front of the field, Stewart had a solid car that kept him among the leads. He is the defending champion of the fall Loudon race and is expected to contend there once again.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the third and final Hendrick driver who finished inside the top ten. However, it was by no means an easy day for the fan favorite. An engine change had forced him to start at the rear of the 43-car field instead of in his excellent qualifying position. Crew chief Steve Letarte adjusted the set-up of the car all race long, though, and Earnhardt Jr. was able to methodically work his way through the field. He now finds himself 17 points out of the lead in seventh position.
Martin Truex Jr. began his second Chase with a quiet ninth-place run. Thought to be a dark horse by many, Truex maintained a reasonable pace throughout the afternoon and now sits ninth in points. His 21-point deficit can easily be made up with a string of solid runs going forward. There's no reason to think that he cannot win a race before the season's end, especially considering how well both Michael Waltrip Racing cars have performed.
Much like his teammate, Clint Bowyer had a relatively uneventful afternoon that resulted in a top ten finish. Only 15 points off the championship pace, Bowyer now heads to one of his better racetracks. He opened the 2007 Chase with a dominant victory in Loudon, and he won the same event in 2010. He will likely need to recapture his past success at the "Magic Mile" to maintain striking distance of Johnson and Keselowski. Should he do so, he will have as good a shot as anyone to win the title.
Kevin Harvick further bolstered his reputation as a driver who posts good-but-not-great runs. He actually has the fewest top-ten finishes among the Chase contenders, and he remains win-less on the year. He won at Loudon in the fall of 2006, but that was when he was consistently challenging for victories. He is still within shouting distance of the point lead, but he really needs to step it up if he wants to be a serious contender.
Greg Biffle was the lead finisher amongst the Roush Fenway cars with a 13th-place run. He was surprisingly muted in today's race, as mile-and-a-halves are normally his strong suit. He kicked off the 2008 Chase with a victory in New Hampshire, but one can hardly consider him a favorite to win on Sunday. As a result of his less-than-stellar run, Biffle fell three spots in the points standings to eighth. However, this is no reason to panic just yet.
Of all the Chase drivers, Denny Hamlin was likely the most frustrated with his performance. Due to a pit road blunder on his final stop, Hamlin ran out of fuel before reaching the finish and lost several spots as a result. Luckily, he began the day with the point lead, which minimized the damage. Still, he lost ground to Keselowski, Johnson and Tony Stewart. He should be a major factor in Loudon, where he had the dominant car in the summer race.
Matt Kenseth had a decent run before he suffered a broken shock. As a result, his team needed to do major repairs on the car and he fell a lap down in the process. He ended the day with an 18th-place finish, but more importantly dropped to 11th in points. Luckily for Kenseth, there was one other Chase driver who had a more catastrophic mechanical failure, which kept him out of the Chase cellar. Still, he needs a rebound performance in Loudon.
Jeff Gordon was not able to follow up his magical run in Richmond with another solid outing. The bad luck that has bitten him all season returned in the form of a stuck throttle, and he hit the wall hard on lap 188. There is no longer any room for error in his title hopes. Being forty-seven points out of first, Gordon is essentially a full race behind Keselowski. Still, he can take solace in the fact that he was running inside the top-five when calamity struck. He had one of the dominant cars in the Loudon race last fall, and he needs the same this coming weekend. He is not completely out of it, but he will be with another bad outing.