JOLIET, Ill. – Denny Hamlin vowed to make it to the championship round of NASCAR’s playoffs, and nothing so far is getting in his way.
Not a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered playing basketball just days before the regular-season finale.
Not a horrible day of practice that resulted in an awful starting position for the opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Not a spin Sunday two laps into the race that dropped him to last in the field at Chicagoland Speedway and one lap down from the leaders.
Hamlin stepped up and once again showed his resilience by rallying for a surprise victory in the first race of the 10-race Chase. The win for Joe Gibbs Racing — a heavy favorite to win the championship — earned Hamlin an automatic berth in the second round of the playoffs.
“Go have some fun the next two weeks, that’s for sure. Takes some pressure off of us,” Hamlin said about his strategy for the next two weeks.
It was a decidedly different mood for reigning champion Kevin Harvick, who vowed four days ago not to be intimidated by JGR’s recent muscle and said “we’re going to pound them into the ground” during the Chase.
Instead, contact with Jimmie Johnson on a restart caused a tire rub on Harvick’s car. He thought the issue had fixed itself, but his left rear tire blew two laps later and he was in the wall.
Harvick drove the car to the garage for repairs, and his anger toward Johnson was evident as headed back on the track — his finger pointed out his window at Johnson’s crew — 57 laps off the pace and second-to-last in the field. Johnson went to Harvick’s motorhome after the race to speak to Harvick, but Harvick walked out of the bus and shoved Johnson in the chest with a closed fist. The two had to be restrained.
Harvick is last in the 16-driver field, and four drivers will be cut from the Chase in two weeks. Asked what he needs to do to stay in contention, he was blunt: “We’ve just got to go win one of these next two races.”
Carl Edwards rallied from a speeding penalty to finish second, and Kurt Busch slipped from the lead with 10 laps left on a restart and finished third.