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RAPID REACTION: Late Caution Hands Truex Jr. Chicagoland Victory

Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway marked the first of 10 Sprint Cup Series races in the Chase for the Championship, and Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. earned his third win of the season.

Truex Jr. has been one of the fastest drivers all year and has won two of the last three races. His Denver-based team was riding high with confidence entering the playoffs and now the No. 78 Toyota has guaranteed its spot into the Round of 12, which starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway next month.

Rookies Denied

Twenty-year-old Chase Elliott was five laps away from winning his first career Cup race and advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Then the yellow flag waved when Michael McDowell suffered a flat tire, and his No. 95 Chevrolet smacked the outside wall. During the ensuing caution, Elliott led the field down pit road but came out second behind Truex, who would restart fourth.

Another rookie competitor Ryan Blaney gambled by staying out under caution, allowing his Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford to inherit the lead. However, Truex on four fresh tires flew past Blaney for the lead with two laps to go, and he never looked back. Elliott finished third, and Blaney wound up fourth.

Hendrick Resurgence; Chasing Chase

Despite coming up without the win, Hendrick Motorsports should feel pleased with the speed it showed throughout the day. Jimmie Johnson led the most laps (118) but was penalized with less than 35 laps remaining for exiting pit road too fast during the last cycle of green-flag pit stops. Johnson, who admitted that “it was a top-five day” for the No. 48 team, finished a disappointing 12th place.

The No. 24 and No. 48 were back to their race-leading ways again at Chicagoland. Well actually, all four of the HMS cars were fast on Sunday, including Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Alex Bowman in the No. 88. Kahne has struggled almost all of 2016, but the last few weeks have been a little brighter for his team and earned a seventh-place result. Bowman, filling in for the sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished 10th — marking his first career top 10 in a Cup race.

(Not So) Freaky Fast

Kevin Harvick qualified fourth for the 400-mile event but had to start from the back of the field for unapproved body adjustments, along with Kyle Larson. He charged through the field quickly at the beginning of the race, climbing to eighth, but the No. 4 went a lap down during the first cycle of green flag stops. A caution came out at the wrong time for Harvick, and he fell a lap down, setting him up for a bad start to the Chase.

The Jimmy John’s Chevrolet finished 20th. In back-to-back years now, Harvick has had poor performances at Chicagoland. But if there’s one thing Harvick knows how to do, it’s winning with his back against the wall. He wrecked at Chicagoland in 2015 and then won in a must-win situation at Dover two weeks later. Don’t count out “Happy” just yet.

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By John Haverlin

John Haverlin is currently studying Communication at Arizona State University. He has been a reporter at Phoenix International Raceway for three years and has written news stories for the track's official site. Born and raised in Long Island, N.Y., Haverlin has lived in Arizona the past three years.