JOLIET, IL – Going into the Chase, Joe Gibbs Racing was considered the team to beat, and after a roller coaster performance that began with a Lap 2 spin and culminated in victory lane, @DennyHamlin proved that was still the case.
Hamlin, who is racing with a torn ACL for the rest of this season, admitted even after working his way through the field and using the wave around, was worried it would all be for nothing with a chaotic five lap dash looming.
He stayed out on a last minute decision and held off the charging field which had fresher tires, using clean air caused by @JeffGordonWeb stacking the field to seal victory.
“I thought we were screwed actually,” Hamlin said. “Starting on the second row with old tires, especially new tires right on the outside of you, I thought the only chance we have is to get three-wide entering Turn 1 and get some clean air. It worked out that way. Once we got clean air, those were the fastest laps I ran all day.”
A late restart combined with tire strategy catapulted the JGR driver into a winning position, while teammate Carl Edwards, who himself rebounded from an early pit road speeding penalty and motor problems, took second.
While Hamlin gambled to stay out front, Edwards and championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb chose to take tires and chase from behind with dirty air, but fresh rubber.
“My guys just do a great job on pit road, they really do,” Edwards said post-race. “Darian never loses his cool ever. He played the game perfectly with pit strategy.”
Amid the chaos of tire strategy, @KyleBusch, who led 121 laps, fell back on the final restart but nonetheless finished ninth. Third on the JGR pecking order was championship favorite @MattKenseth, who surprisingly finished in the top-five but consistently ran outside the top-10 all day.
“We really struggled. We had probably a 15th-place car at best and barely hung onto the lead lap all day,” Kenseth said. “Somehow we wound up fifth. We definitely finished way better than we deserved today. But that’s what you’ve have to do in these things, you have to try to take your days and try to make them the best you can.”
Throughout recent NASCAR history, it hasn’t necessarily been statement wins near the end of the championship season that defined which team was the one to beat. Often, especially in the Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus era of titles, it was about overcoming adversity and posting solid results in order to remain in the championship hunt.
Each Gibbs driver faced a unique race, and yet all wound up near the front. It may just be one more race, but it is one more race into the sample of their dominance down the stretch, and one more race closer to the championship in Homestead.