So it begins. Chicago, where the Chase began. Chicago, where winning was a big thing, but not the only thing. Win and you advance. Drop out or too near the rear of the pack and all you have is New Hampshire and Charlotte to get it right, to fix the problem, to save your season. Three races, 16 drivers, and just a dozen spots available in order to continue the quest.
Kyle Busch had won two of the previous six events, and his opening segment could not have gone sweeter. He was long gone after the opening lap. Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, and Denny Hamlin were at least in the next time zone to be among the top four.
Others had their work cut out for them. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rubbed the wall, skinned up his right side rubber, but he also ran over the commitment line when he hit the pits. Next thing he knew he was running dead last and was still outside the Top 30 when the segment ended. Too fast under green backed up Martin Truex Jr., who added to his hurt when they needed to return to tighten up some lugnuts between segments. At least he was still 13th when they again waved the green, while Austin Dillon was 22nd. Again, too fast in the pits midway through the opening run earned him a penalty and a hole to dig out of.
Busch opened the middle frame up front. That did not last long. First, Harvick went by him within a few laps, then Rowdy was in the pits with a loose wheel. He had swapped crews with teammate Daniel Suarez in the hopes it would be a help, not a hindrance. Not sure what they thought after being penalized for a man going over the wall too soon, but it could not have been good. That left the driver two laps down in 30th, and probably a tiny bit heated.
Up front, Harvick surrendered the lead to Elliott after the green flag fuel stoppages. By this time, it was all green, leaving just 13 entries on the lead lap, including 10 title contenders. When they crossed the line at the end of the segment, Elliott led Harvick, with Truex fighting his way back up to third. Only Joey Logano was a non-Chaser among the Top Ten when they handed out the bonus points.
Jamie McMurray was one of the dogs in the hunt, until a couple of laps into the final tour. He went for a spin after contact with Ryan Newman. That brought out a caution, but when they returned to full speed McMurray remained on the lead lap within our Top 20. That is more than we could say for Newman, Stenhouse, and Kasey Kahne. That trio sat a couple of laps down.
Down to the final 65 laps, Truex continued the resurrection of his day, getting by Harvick, followed by Elliott to take over as runner-up. As for Kurt Busch, a vibration sent him to the pits early to drop him off the lead lap to join his brother and Dillon. At least until he picked up a speeding penalty. Then he dropped to 20th, a pair of laps down like three other fellows we know and love.
As for Stenhouse, he picked up another speeding penalty. He had 10 bonus points going into the Chase. He used up all the good they gave him in this one event.
On the other end of the scale was Truex. Coming back from his earlier penalty, he walked off with this one as the best driver thus far on the season and won his fifth of the campaign to lock himself into the next round. Elliott and Harvick were the best of the rest, with Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, and Hamlin all recording stout efforts in Chicago.
Kahne, Newman, and Stenhouse finished outside the Top 20, and when we check the standings heading to Loudon, we have seven drivers within 10 points of the 12th place cut off, some ahead, some behind. Ryan Blaney and McMurray are to the good. Dillon and Kurt Busch are tied for that final entry. Stenhouse, Kahne, and Newman are between four and seven points out.
A week ago, we had Truex dominating things while 11 drivers were within 10 points, one way or the other, from the cutoff. Heading to Loudon, not much has changed.