Shortly after his final pit stop of the day during Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Denny Hamlin, the points leader entering the Chase, found out that he was going to be short on fuel.
"We didn't get the car full," Hamlin said. "We decided to make an adjustment and not put all the fuel in it and it just -- he told me I was four laps short and it puts me in a box. I'm trying to hold my position and trying to slow down and just couldn't slow down enough there."
Hamlin had run comfortably in and around the top 10 all day, and was poised to finish 9th. When the checkered flag flew, he was 16th, coasting to the finish line, sure enough, out of fuel.
It was a seven point drop for Hamlin, who was positioned to be within 10 points of race winner and new points leader Brad Keselowski. Instead, Hamlin is 15 points outside of first place after the first race of the Chase.
Here's how all the Chase drivers did on Sunday:
1. Brad Keselowski, 2056 points, (1st place on Sunday): The pass that Keselowski made on Jimmie Johnson shortly after blending (too early to some) back onto the race track after his final pit stop was not only for the race lead but for the points lead. Keselowski, who was tied with Johnson for second place before Chicago, is now all alone in first.
2. Jimmie Johnson, 2053 (2nd place): For all intents and purposes, Vader is where he was going into Sunday's race; in second place in the points and three points behind the points leader. However, it's a different driver he's behind, and given that he started first and led the most laps, a second place finish is a bit of a letdown. Yeah, you're allowed to feel that way about second place when you've won five titles.
3. Tony Stewart, 2048 (6th place): Stewart qualified poorly (29th) and worked his way through the field quickly before going to the back of the pack again after pitting under caution to fix a vibration after a two tire pit stop. Two tires on his final pit stop -- this time without any vibration issues -- allowed him to climb from 9th to 6th on the final sequence.
4. Hamlin, 2041 (16th place): Had his fuel run out a lap or two earlier, Hamlin could be in a load of trouble. Instead, this is just a bruise rather than a major flesh wound to his Chase chances. This is the perfect race to say "It could be worse," take a deep breath and move on to the next one.
5. Kasey Kahne, 2041 (3rd place): This race is the reason that Kahne is a legitimate title threat despite starting 12 points back of Hamlin. Kahne was just a shade behind Keselowski and Johnson all day, but clearly a top five car, proved by his constant presence near the front of the field. And that's been par for the course for Kahne on intermediate tracks since the beginning of the season.
6. Clint Bowyer 2041 (10th place): During the final cycle of green flag pit stops, Bowyer stayed out late to lead a lap and grab a bonus point. That could be a very important bonus point. Bowyer wasn't great, he wasn't bad. 10th place sums it up.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2039 (8th place): Junior had to start in the back after an engine issue in qualifying and admitted after the race that the team couldn't recover from their poor starting position. Plus, there was another sequence on Sunday where Junior lost a handful of spots in the pits under caution and then immediately lost more on the ensuing restart. Had Junior started where he qualified (4th), he could be the guy in victory lane.
8. Greg Biffle, 2037 (13th place): The regular season points champion wasn't his normal intermediate track self at Chicagoland. He hummed quietly on the outskirts of the top 10 all day and that's where he finished.
9. Martin Truex Jr., 2035 (9th place): Another top 10 for Truex, but five Chasers finished ahead of him, including three of the four drivers at the top of the points standings. That stifles the excitement just a little bit.
10. Kevin Harvick, 2032 (12th place): Sunday was a good microcosm of Kevin Harvick's season. His team struggled with an ill-handling car all day between 10th and 20th and salvaged a good, but not great finish. But, just like Truex, the lack of bonus points and the ground lost to those that had them stings a little.
11. Matt Kenseth 2030 (18th place): Kenseth finished inside the top 20 but was 11th of the 12 Chasers. That's primarily due to a broken shock joint that caused the part to fall out from underneath his car under caution. Kenseth drove around with an ill-handling race car until the next caution, when the team was able to work on the car, but the ground he lost was too much to make up.
12. Jeff Gordon, 2009 (35th place): Ouch. That's in reference to both Gordon's position in the points standings and the impact he took from the crash resulting from a stuck throttle on his car. Yeah, there are still nine races left, but he's going to need to race like he closed out the regular season for the rest of the Chase to get back to the top.
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