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.
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.
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.