Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 4
By: John Singler on December 29, 2015 | 9:45 A.M. EST
The 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup kicked off at Chicagoland where Denny Hamlin went to Victory Lane. (Photo: Getty Images)
This is the fourth of a five-part series recapping the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Kyle Busch would claim his first Cup championship.
Denny Hamlin passed up fresh tires in favor of track position and it paid big dividends as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the opening event of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. While most of the front-runners pitted for tires on the day’s final caution, Hamlin - along with race leader Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon - rolled the dice and remained on the track.
On the restart, Hamlin quickly disposed of Busch and Gordon, and led the final five laps to post his second victory of the season and qualify for the next round of the Chase. His margin of victory was one second over runner-up Carl Edwards as JGR finished one-two. Busch took third place while Gordon faded to 14th. Ryan Newman placed fourth and Matt Kenseth completed the top five.
Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick finished 42nd in the 43-car field. Contact with Jimmie Johnson during a restart midway through the race damaged the left side of Harvick’s car which led to a cut tire, sending him into the wall and to the garage for repairs. He was running at the finish but completed only 209 of the 267 laps.
Hamlin’s win was the ninth victory in a 12-race stretch for JGR and the 26th of his career, tying Hamlin with Hall of Fame driver Fred Lorenzen for 27th place on NASCAR’s all-time list. Kenseth’s fifth-place finish lifted him into first place in the Chase standings, two points ahead of Hamlin. Race Results
The beat goes on for Joe Gibbs Racing as Matt Kenseth delivered the organization’s fourth straight victory, joining teammate Denny Hamlin in the next round of the post-season Chase.
Kenseth was running second in the closing laps when race leader Kevin Harvick ran out of fuel, opening the door for Kenseth to claim his series-best fifth win of the year. JGR had now won 10 of the last 13 races.
Hamlin followed Kenseth to the checkered flag to grab second place with Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and pole sitter Carl Edwards ... another JGR driver ... completing the top five. Harvick started second and dominated the day, leading a race-high 216 of the 300 laps. But his gamble on fuel mileage did not pay off and the defending Sprint Cup champion found himself among the bottom four in the Chase standings and facing elimination heading into the next race at Dover. Race Results
DOVER INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY
Kevin Harvick did what was needed to keep his 2015 title hopes alive: win at Dover International Speedway. Harvick, whose No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was dominant throughout the day, darted away from the field on the final restart to notch his third victory of the season. It landed Harvick in the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which was made up of the 12 survivors from the original Chase Grid.
Harvick entered the Chase as the No. 5 but a pair of sub-far finishes in the first two races of the post-season left him among the bottom four in the standings and facing elimination. At Dover, he led all but 45 of the 400 laps, beating runner-up Kyle Busch to the finish by 2.6 seconds.
With Harvick leading comfortably in the closing laps, the only drama that remained was a duel between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray for the 12th – and final – spot in the Contender Round. Earnhardt finished third, one position ahead of McMurray. They wound up with the same number of points, but Earnhardt gots the berth in the next round after winning the tie breaker – their best finishing position in the opening round of the Chase. That came down to Dover with "Junior" edging McMurray by that one position.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was among the four drivers eliminated from title contention. He finished 41st, sidelined by a broken seal on his rear axle. Race Results
For the second year in a row, Team Penske’s Joey Logano opened the Contender Round of the post-season Chase with a victory and guaranteed himself a spot in the next round of the 10-race title hunt. Logano crushed the field at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 227 of the 334 laps in notching his fourth victory of the season.
He beat runner-up Kevin Harvick to the checkered flag by three-quarters of a second, keeping his No. 22 Ford in front over the final 35 laps. Martin Truex Jr. finished third with Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch completing the top five.
Pole sitter Matt Kenseth led 72 laps but was sidelined by an accident midway through the second half of the race. He finished next-to-last in the 43-car field, tumbling to the bottom of the Chase standings with the post-season nearing the halfway mark.
Chase drivers took eight of the nine top finishing positions with Austin Dillon the only non-title contender among them, in seventh place. The four other drivers in the Contender Round all finished outside the top 10 and slipped to the bottom of the post-season standings. Ryan Newman was 15th, Kyle Busch 20th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 28th and Kenseth 42nd.
The race was originally scheduled to be run on a Saturday night, but rain moved it to Sunday afternoon. For Logano, it’s his 12th career victory. Carl Edwards finished sixth in his bid for a season sweep at CMS. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in May. Race Results
Joey Logano made it two-for-two in the Contender Round of the Chase, pushing race leader Matt Kenseth out of the way five laps from the finish to notch his fifth win of the year and second straight in the post-season.
Kenseth had driven into the lead coming out of the day’s next-to-last restart, but Logano stalked him down the stretch. When Kenseth threw a block to hold him off heading into Turn 1, Logano tapped him and sent the Joe Gibbs Racing driver sliding sideways through the corner to bring out the final caution of the race. On the subsequent restart, Logano drove away from the field and beat runner-up Denny Hamlin to the checkered flag by a half-second.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne finished third and fourth, respectively, with Kyle Busch completing the top five. Pole sitter Brad Keselowski led only the first 28 laps and finished ninth.
Kenseth, the No. 3 post-season seed, went into the weekend among the bottom four in the Chase standings, seeking a win to secure a spot in the Eliminator Round. He started 11th and led a race-high 153 laps before the late altercation with Logano dashed his hopes for victory and saddled him with a 14th-place finish. That left Kenseth 35 points below the eighth-place cutoff heading into the final race of the Contender Round. Race Results
Joey Logano made it a Contender Round sweep. He was declared the winner over Dale Earnhardt Jr. when a multi-car accident occurred behind the leaders during a green-white-checkered finish. The caution froze the field at that point.
Despite the second-place finish and leading the most laps, Earnhardt was eliminated from title contention along with Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth. Hamlin suffered the biggest disappointment of the race, falling from second in points to elimination after finishing 37th, four laps down.
Kenseth, like Earnhardt, needed a win to advance to the next round but was caught up in the final wreck and finished 26th. Kevin Harvick advanced despite having a car that struggled to get up to speed on the final restart and making contact with Trevor Bayne, triggering the wreck that would end the race.
eff Gordon kept his championship hopes alive by finishing third. Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. Kyle Busch (11th) and Martin Truex Jr. (seventh) both survived that final wreck and had finishes high enough to advance them to the Eliminator Round. Truex battled back from one lap down in a race that featured long green-flag runs.
The race saw 30 lead changes among 18 drivers and was run with just three cautions for 18 laps. Race Results