JOLIET, Ill. — If the plan was to spot the competition a lead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano have their rivals right where they want them. Both got off to a miserable start in the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship won by Matt Kenseth.
Logano, the pole-sitter, was forced to drop out of Sunday’s rain-delayed race at Chicagoland Speedway when his engine quit with 91 laps remaining. He finished 37th.
Some 50 laps later, Earnhardt wound up following Logano onto pit road with a race-ending problem of his own. He settled for 35th.
They were the only two in the 13-driver Chase qualifying field not to finish the first of NASCAR’s 10-race, season-ending playoff series. None of the other drivers finished worse than 16th.
“I am pretty angry,” Logano said. “That was such a fast race car we had.”
Kenseth pulled away from teammate Kyle Busch, a steely win by the top seed in the Chase that helped restore a sense of normalcy at the end of a week that saw NASCAR fighting the biggest credibility crisis in its history.
Now the sport waits to see if its fans are still angry that several teams manipulated the race finish at Richmond. The ensuing scandal has raised questions about NASCAR’s integrity that winning team owner Joe Gibbs said he’s seen before in sports.
“I’ve seen things like that happen on the NFL side,” said Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winning coach with the Washington Redskins. “We tried to do the best we could in handling it, and hopefully we’ve got this behind us with the race. We all love our sport and nobody wants anything that would hurt or harm it or disappoint people.”
Kenseth said he was eager to help NASCAR move on.
“I think the important thing is it’s behind us,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s pretty clear what everybody expects and the things we should do or not do, though a lot of that is pretty obvious, anyway. Hopefully we can move on because I think it’s been a tough week not only for some of the teams involved, but I think it’s also been a tough week for NASCAR.”
A strong opener to the 10-race Chase would have gone a long way, but rain made it a difficult day.
The start was delayed by mist for almost 90 minutes. Once the race did go off, it made it almost to the halfway point before the sky opened up again. In all, there were two stoppages totaling 6 hours, 30 minutes and Kenseth didn’t cross the finish line until early Monday morning.
It was worth the wait when 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.
He’ll take an eight-point lead over Busch into next week’s race at New Hampshire.
That’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.
“We’re excited about that,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. “I think our program has been pretty solid all the way around.”
Logano qualified for the Chase for the first time this year, and was embroiled in the scandal-plagued race at Richmond last weekend. After a wide-ranging investigation, NASCAR officials punished Michael Waltrip Racing for its role in manipulating the race. Additionally, Logano’s Penske Racing team was placed on probation Friday for its role in bargaining for track position at Richmond to get Logano in the Chase.
At least Logano’s problems on this night were limited to the track. He had gone to pit road once before his exit, complaining of cylinder problems with his Ford.
“Unfortunately the motor blew up. You have these every once in a while,” said Logano, teammate of defending series champion Brad Keselowski. “It’s a bummer to have it in the Chase when you are running for a championship. I feel like Chicago was one of those tracks we could win at. Everyone was doing the right thing. ... It just wasn’t our day I guess.”
Earnhardt felt the same way. He got caught in a slow-speed pile-up on pit road, damaged the nose of his car and struggled to keep the front end together the rest of the race.
“We were going to get that patched up and maybe be able to make something out of it,” Earnhardt said. “But something broke there in the motor. It’s tough.”
The question going forward becomes whether either man can make up the deficit.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in the 2006 playoff opener and came back to win the title. But he only dropped to ninth in what was then a 10-driver qualifying field; Logano and Earnhardt will head to the next Chase occupying the last two spots in the 13-driver field.
Earnhardt moves to the next race in New Hampshire ranked 13th, 53 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, who won the opener at Chicagoland. Logano is 12th, 52 points back.
“Everyone did a good job. That is what we have to hold our heads up about,” Logano said. “It is a tough break for this team. We are strong. We have battled through a lot of adversity this year and we will keep doing it.”
Earnhardt was not quite as optimistic.
“We have some pretty tough competition in the Chase,” he said. “The average finish is going to be inside the top 10 to win the championship. So you can do the numbers, you can do the math.”