By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
The first race of the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has come and gone, and with it a plethora of storylines have unfolded in the paddock.
Teams that laid dormant throughout the summer have suddenly come to life, while drivers that entered as favorites to hoist the Sprint Cup at the end of the season have suddenly found themselves in a hole after facing unexpected issues.
Martin Truex, Jr., stamped his name into the second round of the Chase with a victory in Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400. In doing so with a car that failed post-race laser inspection, the New Jersey native also forced NASCAR’s hand into making rule changes that will effect the entire 16-team field moving forward.
As I type this, the Cup teams are already parking their haulers in the infield at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and getting to work preparing for the second race of the playoff. Still, before we get to that point there’s a lot to process and note moving forward.
Let’s slow things down for a second and take a look at what we learned at Chicagoland.
1) Hendrick Joins Harvick to Lead Chevrolet’s Chase Effort
Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with eight of the 16 teams in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup, but only one driver –Kevin Harvick– entered the opening round favored by most to make the Championship 4. The manufacturer needed to see speed from more teams to have a good chance of competing with Toyota’s final five and Ford’s Team Penske come the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Enter Hendrick Motorsports.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and rookie Chase Elliott combined to lead 193 of Sunday’s 270 laps at Chicagoland, with Elliott sitting in position to claim his first NSCS victory until the caution flag flew on lap 264.
The result was a return to form of sorts for one of NASCAR’s best teams, and while Johnson threw away a top five with a pit road speeding penalty and failed post-race LIS inspection (we’ll get to that later), both he and Elliott should be fine if they continue to show the speed displayed in Illinois.
2) Team Penske Is at Their Quiet Best
It’s been a relatively quiet year for Team Penske — or at least as quiet as a five-win season can be — but as the organization proved with twin top-five results in Chicago, that may not be a bad thing.
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano both entered the Chase field after finishing the regular season inside of the top five in points, yet somehow the duo seem to have flown under the radar, with Logano in particular entering the playoff without much discussion after earning only one win on the year (coming at Michigan International Speedway in June).
Penske’s quiet success continued at Chicagoland, where the organization took advantage of the race’s final restart to soar into the top five. Logano got the better of Elliott to claim second, with Keselowski following in fifth.
Courtesy of their strong runs, both drivers look to be in a safe position to advance to round two if they can avoid turmoil for two more races. If they can match the speed and consistency they’ve shown over the last three months, they might just make it all the way to Homestead, too.
3) Toyota’s Still the Team to Beat
Ford and Chevrolet both mounted strong challenges in Chicago, but in the end it was Toyota once again that reigned supreme with Truex’s third win of the season.
Truex’s triumph continued the trend of the season for the Sprint Cup Series. NASCAR’s newest manufacturer has tallied victories in 14 of the season’s 27 races between Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, including the last three races.
Yes, Elliott was in position to win before the race’s final caution, and yes, Truex failed post-race inspection afterward. Still, Toyota found themselves in victory lane once again, and in a series where wins mean more than anything in the championship battle, they have to be the presumptive favorite to take the title in nine weeks.
Speaking of Truex failing post-race inspection…
4) “LIS” No Longer the Drinking Phrase of the Chase
Well done, NASCAR.
As I wrote about yesterday, NASCAR elected to change the rules for post-race LIS failures instead of penalizing Truex and Johnson for their near-identical infractions in Chicagoland.
The move, while met with equal parts praise and scrutiny, was a necessary evil after Truex’s win exposed a flaw in the current penalty system. Had the previous ruling held, both Truex and Johnson would’ve been penalized 10 points as part of a P2 penalty. However, Truex would’ve been credited with his win and given automatic advancement to the second round of the Chase, while Johnson would’ve been bumped to 12th in points, sitting on the bubble in his attempt to avenge last season’s first round exit.
That sort of loophole was a major flaw, and NASCAR owned up to their mistake before creating a set of rules to avoid it moving forward. Now minor infractions will be no more. Teams will be given clearance to push the limit until the threshold for a P4 penalty is crossed. However, any team thats steps over the line will be effectively eliminated, being issued a 35-point penalty and stripped of any benefits from their finish, i.e. advancement to the next round of the Chase with a win.
The new rule isn’t perfect, but it should remove the incentive for teams to push the limit too far. Hopefully the term “LIS” will go the way of lug nuts and fade back into relative obscurity so we can all focus on the racing.
5) Cinderella Need Not Lose Her Shoe
Cinderella made it to the ball, but it doesn’t look like she’ll make it to midnight this time around.
Chris Buescher’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team was the surprise of the season when they parlayed a weather-shortened win at Pocono Raceway into the team’s first birth in the Chase.
The team were the biggest underdogs of the year by a noticeable margin, just scraping by to make the Chase after finishing the regular season 30th in points. Naturally, this also made them a favorite to be among the first four teams out of the playoff when the checkered flag waves at Dover International Raceway.
Buescher’s team did nothing to sway that opinion in the Chase opener, running well behind the other 15 competitors before finishing 28th, two laps down. The rookie now trails 12th-place Tony Stewart by 12 points with two races remaining before the first cutoff.
Is it possible that Buescher’s team could pull off another miracle to keep the dream alive? Certainly. Is it likely? Absolutely not.
Still, for an underfunded team historically known for finishing anywhere from 25th-40th, just making their first Chase is a success and something to build on.