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Gordon, Kurt Busch salvage Chicago

September 16, 2013, Kenny Bruce,

In the hunt for the Chase, mid-race recoveries are key

JOLIET, Ill. -- Their title hopes began to unravel due to different circumstances on different occasions. Both, however, were able to recover and exit with only minimal damage in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

For Kurt Busch, the issue was speeding on pit road, an early-race mistake that put the Furniture Row Racing driver a lap down to the leader barely 75 laps into Sunday’s rain-hampered Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

For Jeff Gordon, it was a flat left rear tire that sent the Hendrick Motorsports driver to the pits under green some 100 laps later. He, too, fell off the lead lap, and seemingly out of the picture.

Both were able to regain the lost laps. Both were able to race their way back into the top five. Impressive runs are necessary to maintain title hopes, and in the opener, both Busch and Gordon -- and their respective teams -- delivered.

Busch finished fourth, his best result at the 1.5-mile track just southwest of Chicago, and jumped four spots in the points battle. With race No. 1 of this year’s 10-race playoff out of the way, the 2004 champion now sits sixth in the standings.

Gordon lost his bid for a top-five only after dropping a position in the closing laps to teammate Jimmie Johnson and finished sixth.

Last in the 13-car field hours earlier, the four-time champion departed with a six-spot gain and seventh-place points position.

“To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go … we were like 18th on one of those last restarts,” Gordon said. “To be able to come up through there and get sixth with a shot at a top five was a lot of fun. That’s what we needed to get this thing started off right.”

Gordon led three times for 22 laps in the 267-lap event, which was run under the lights for the first time thanks to a rain delay of more than five hours. Only 109 laps had been completed when showers halted action on the track.

Leading when the night’s sixth caution -- the result of debris -- came out, Gordon restarted third. But the cut tire quickly sent him back to pit road, and by the time he made it back out on the track, he was one lap down.

“When we had the flat tire and had to stop and got a lap down, we were at the mercy of the caution,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “Then there was another quick caution and we were able to come and get four tires and put fuel in; we were still a lap down.

“I thought it was probably going to go green and we were either going to have to get it by going fast enough on the track to gain spots or have an advantageous caution and we did both. I was amazed how fast our car was. He made up a ton of time on the leader and pretty much everybody on the track. We had about 10 more laps of (fuel and tire) range on those guys and we used it to our advantage. Then after about seven laps we got the caution (we needed).”

Busch’s first setback came on lap 77 -- giving him a bit more of a window of opportunity to overcome the miscue. Still, it was tough sledding on a night when speeds and emotions ran high.

Busch took the wave-around shortly after the lengthy red-flag period when the leaders hit pit road for tires and fuel. When the caution appeared several laps later after Juan Pablo Montoya’s Chevrolet shredded a rear tire, Busch was able to pit and cycle back with the leaders.

When he pitted for the final time on Lap 220, it was with a tire already going down.

“We had some adversity to overcome,” he said. “Just a genuine battle all night with Chase guys.

"Once we got up into the top 10, we held our own. Those restarts, it’s crazy how aggressive everybody is … it’s just the name of the game right now. Overall, though, these guys found a way to get back on the lead lap, found solid pit stops tonight. Bringing home a top-five to start it off, that’s what it’s all about."

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth collected the win with teammate Kyle Busch finishing second. And "those two Gibbs cars were just fast," Busch aptly noted.

"We were, tonight, I think third at best."


READ: Kenseth wins at rainy Chicagoland

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WATCH: Final Laps: Kenseth takes Chicagoland