A Night of Comebacks: Chase Contenders Make Noise in Lifelock.com 400

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJuly 12, 2009

JOLIET, IL - JULY 11: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 National Guard Patriot Academy/DuPont Chevrolet, races Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 11, 2009 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Races at the Chicagoland Speedway for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are generally a three hour affair of single-file racing.

Save for late-race dramatics and the shootout restarts, this year's Lifelock.com 400 lived up to those standards.

However, that's not to say that the final third of this race was lacking in action. In fact, the 1.5 quad-oval facility produced racing that resembled that of the short tracks on the circuit fused with restrictor plate tactics.

Drivers were bump-drafting each other in the straights, trying to make any head-way to the front of the pack, pushing each other to the limit for positions and points.

For the case of the other 42 competitors, it was Mark Martin's race to lose, as the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet led for 195 of the 267 laps on this eight-year old facility to grab his fourth victory of 2009.

Martin, who kept telling his crew chief Alan Gustafson that he "was having fun out there" with his dominant car, aided to his case to make the Chase.

Probably adding to the good times for Martin and Hendrick Motorsports was their $1 million payout as a result of the No. 5 and No. 24 teams finishing 1-2 in Lifelock's second race of the season.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based company put up a million dollar payday for some lucky race fans if the same top two finishing teams from their race in last month's Michigan race placed in the first and second positions on Saturday night.

Richard and Donna Musgrave, who hail from Colorado with professions as a petroleum worker and convenient store owner respectively, correctly guessed on Martin and Gordon finishing in the top two for Lifelock's sponsored races.

To put the icing on the cake, the one-two HMS finish fell on the eve of car owner Rick Hendrick's 60th birthday.

"That was fun," Martin said in Victory Lane, per AP sports writer Jenna Fryer's article. "That's what life is about."

With his fourth win of 2009, the No. 5 team suddenly finds themselves sitting 11th in points, but more importantly, leading the Chase seeds if the playoffs began next week.

The 50 year-old's victory was not the only story line from Joliet, Ill., as Chase veterans like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Jimmie Johnson finished in the top 10 to solidify their positions in the top 12.

For the case of the No. 24 National Guard's Patriot Academy/DuPont Chevrolet team, it was a night of many battles.

From the close quarter racing with the No. 99 of Carl Edwards that nearly saw both drivers eliminated from contention to the clever pit tactics by crew chief Steve Letarte, Gordon went from the 8th-15th place zone to playing potential spoiler for the Martin parade.

Instead, the Rainbow Warriors brought a runner-up finish home, padding more "comfort points" between them and the Chasers from 12th on back.

It was not a fun night for the No. 18 M&M's Ultimate Chocolate Toyota team and Kyle Busch, who struggled to a 33rd finish.

Plagued by handling issues and damage from contact with the wall, it became another race of famine for the 24-year-old Vegas star, who suddenly finds himself in danger of missing the Chase.

This year's field of twelve drivers may have a different look than the past, with drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer, and Brian Vickers try to race their way for a coveted spot as a title seed.

Montoya's hot streak in the summer continues, finishing in the top 10 in six of the past eight races which have propelled his No. 42 Target Chevrolet team to the ninth spot in the points standings.

Despite a win-less season, Montoya has run a solid season with a bevy of top 10 finishes that has brought the Bogota, Colombian native among the elites in the 2009 season.

While they may be long shots, as proven in tonight's race, the battle is not truly over until the checkered flag falls.

For the case of these three drivers, consistent finishes and some bad luck with the front Chase runners could spell some excitement for the September race in Richmond.

While Bowyer has tasted the Chase twice in his Cup career, Vickers and Reutimann would love to experience playoff fever before the title clock strikes midnight in the fall.

Vickers is certainly making his case for Red Bull Racing. Finishing in seventh place finish at Chicagoland, the 25-year-old Thomasville, N.C. native now stands 146 points away from the 12th position, the final spot for the Chase.

Reutimann continues his solid season with Michael Waltrip Racing, finishing 12th in the race and just 76 markers from 12th place.

For a race that had a decent start, dry middle, but excellent end, I'd have to give a grade of B-.

It may have not been the most exciting race of the season, but the shootout format, pit strategies, and late-race jostling made the Lifelock.com 400 into an interesting event that has shaken up the complexion of point standings.

After some intense racing toward the outset of the Saturday night show at Chicagloand, the Cup gang takes a week off before some Brickyard action for the 16th running of the Allstate 400 at Indianpolis Motor Speedway.

ESPN will take the reigns for the television side of things, with live pre-race coverage starting at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 26.

Rob's Observations...

On a side note, it has been quite the six race segment for racing fans across the world who followed TNT's NASCAR coverage.

Saturday night's race also marked the Turner network's season finale of Cup action, with this event ending with a bang and thumbs up for this particular fan who Twittered and followed the race on RaceBuddy.

Overall, I was impressed with the way this race was called from the booth. Ralph Sheheen was the consummate professional, speaking lively and letting his commentating pals in Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach do most of the bantering which made the race more exciting than it was.

Once those late race cautions came out, it was anyone's guess as to how it would end. The TNT folks got it right, and the pit reporters in Lindsay Czarniak, Marty Snider, Matt Yocum, and Adam Alexander were absolutely stellar with their insights of the stops and adjustments made with the leaders and mid-pack cars.

RaceBuddy is some kind of innovation, and in some ways, a welcome remedy to those who want to see something besides ads from Papa John's or the assorted barrage of beer and soda advertisers.

Oh yea, what'd you all think of Jimmy Fallon's role as Grand Marshall? I was truly impressed with his genuine enthusiasm. As it was his first race, I could only imagine how much excitement he must have felt being at a Sprint Cup race. His GYSE has to go down as one of the best I've heard in quite some time.

Lastly, I just wanted to say how much fun it was to chat with B/R writers Kelly Crandall and Kara Martin, as well as interacting with NASCAR writers Dustin Long and Becca Gladden. I look foward to more of these races when I'm around for these finishes!

Til' next time, hope to chat with y'all for these races! For you race fans and Creatures with Twitters, follow me at twitter.com/RobTiongson!


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