Martin Truex Jr. shot to the front after a late re-start and pulled away to give his small Furniture Row Racing a NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff-opening victory Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Chase Elliott appeared on his way to the victory and a spot in the second round of the 10-race Chase until Michael McDowell’s spin brought a caution with five laps left.
Elliott and Truex came in to pit, with non-Chase drivers Ryan Blaney and Kasey Kahne and Chase contender Carl Edwards staying on the track.
Truex restarted fourth and quickly got to the front and pulled away from Joey Logano on the final lap for his third victory of the season. The victory gave him a spot in the second round of the Chase when the field is cut from 16 to 12 in two weeks.
Elliott, a rookie, was third, followed by Blaney and Chase driver Brad Keselowski.
It was an impressive comeback for Truex, who led early in the race only to have his tire come completely unravel. It led to an unscheduled stop that left him a lap down in the 400-mile race.
He outraced Kevin Harvick, who also got into early trouble, to be in position for the free pass to the lead lap on the next caution.
With qualifying canceled Friday because of rain, Chase top-seed Kyle Busch started from the pole.
Kevin Harvick should have been on the second row, but was sent to the back of the field for what NASCAR called unapproved adjustments.
While Busch stayed out front for 21 laps, Harvick jumped to 10th in 20 laps in one of the best early charges of the season on the circuit. By the 30th lap, he was eighth.
But with drivers in their first green-flag stops, Aric Almirola’s team lost a tire. It rolled across pit road and drew a caution, leaving Harvick a lap down while Jimmie Johnson just barely got to the start-finish line to stay on the lead lap.
Johnson dominated the middle of the race, leading 118 laps, until Elliott got by him on lap 176 of 267. Johnson was running second when he was caught speeding on pit road during the last green-flag stop, yelling “no way!” on his radio when told he had to serve a pass-through penalty. Johnson finished 12th.
Elliott led for 75 laps in what was a clean race with only three cautions until the McDowell’s late wreck changed the dynamic of the race.
The rest of the Chase drivers had mixed days. Denny Hamlin was sixth, Busch eighth and Matt Kenseth ninth. Jamie McMurray finished 11th, Kurt Busch 13th, Austin Dillon 14th and Edwards 15th.
Tony Stewart was 16th, while Harvick faced multiple problems while finishing 20th.
Rookie Chris Buescher had the worst day of the title contenders, finishing 28th and two laps down.