JOLIET, Ill. – Mother Nature tried to throw a block, but NASCAR and central Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth ultimately drove around her.
In a race that started in mid-afternoon (delayed more than an hour due to rain) and finished just an hour before midnight, Kenseth won a series-high sixth race to kick off the 10-event Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs in Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Kenseth led 89 laps in a race that not only had its start delayed more than an hour due to rain, completed 109 laps of the scheduled 267 laps before a deluge came, resulting in a second rain delay that lasted five hours, 10 minutes.
By the time the race resumed around 9 pm CT, Kenseth essentially picked up where he left off, having been scored as the leader when rain stopped the event after 109 laps.
Kenseth unquestionably had the strongest car in the field, but was helped late in the race by an aero-push from behind by Kevin Harvick, allowing Kenseth to pull away from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and continued on to the checkered flag.
"We did everything we needed to do," Kenseth said. "I'm glad we got out front (late in the race, aided by a push from Kevin Harvick). It's just been a great fit (since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing this season). This whole organization has been so special. I'm just glad the Lord put me here."
Busch was visibly upset, going for a third win in as many days, having won Friday's Truck Series race and Saturday's Nationwide Series, only to finish just short in second place. Had Busch been able to do so, it would have been only the second time in his NASCAR career that he pulled off the so-called trifecta.
"We would have liked it the other way around (with him winning and Kenseth finishing second)," Kyle Busch said. "They beat us and it's a good night for Joe Gibbs Racing to start the Chase like that."
Harvick, who is in his final season with Richard Childress Racing (he moves to Stewart-Haas Racing next season), finished third, followed by Kurt Busch and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson in fifth.
"Unfortunately, we didn't have the speed at the end there in the final segment," Johnson said. "We had a variety of issues, but we're still proud of the way we came back."
Sixth through 10th were four-time champ Jeff Gordon, who drove perhaps the most inspired race in almost vintage form of the most successful era of his career, followed by defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski in seventh, followed by rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman.
Gordon had a tire issue that dropped him deep in the field, but rallied back in the final 40 laps to just barely miss out on a top-five finish.
"That was an incredible accomplishment," Gordon said of his late rally. "It just shows the fight we have in this team, they just never give up. To get sixth and have a shot at a top-five, that's what we needed to get this thing started off in the right way."
The race featured some outstanding side-by-side racing, with 25 lead changes among 16 drivers, both event records.
Several Chase drivers suffered a variety of mechanical maladies in the race that proved costly, including Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both with blown motors. Earnhardt finished 35th, while Logano wound up 37th.
Just as important as the win for Kenseth is he remained atop the Chase standings. Kenseth leads Busch by eight points, followed by Johnson (11 points back), Harvick (15), and a tie for fifth between Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch (both 23 points back).
Seventh through 13th are Gordon (24), Newman and Bowyer (both tied for eighth, 28 points back), Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle (tied for 10th, 31 points back), Logano (52) and Earnhardt (53).
For the second time in three years, Sunday's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway was impacted by a stubborn rain. But unlike three years ago, when the race never even began and was pushed back to the next day, NASCAR waited it out for five-plus hours, even when thousands of fans who showed up for the race ultimately went home once the deluge began after Lap 109.
Logano, who started on the pole, and Johnson dominated in the first part of the race, with Logano leading 32 laps and Johnson 40. After building nearly a three-second lead, Johnson had a slow pit stop during a caution period on Lap 76, which was compounded by an incorrect error by a pit official that lug nuts were loose on the right rear tire of Johnson's car, further delaying his exit from the pits.
Johnson eventually came back on the track in fifth position.
"There was one (lug nut) hanging there," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "One had fallen off during the hand-in, so it was kind of hanging there, but the tire changer had taken his time. He did his job. He did a great job getting the other lug nut on there and making sure it was tight. The official thought there were only four on there. We all make mistakes. That happens from time to time."
The race started under clouds in mid-afternoon and resumed under the lights on what was essentially a green race track after all the rain washed away any rubber to aid with grip for drivers and their race cars.
Once the race restarted, it remained under caution until Lap 115 when the green flag finally fell to resume high-speed action.
"This is a big win," said Kenseth, who has come close several times at winning before at Chicagoland, but always fell short until Sunday. It was especially important for him to win in the Windy City because Kenseth hails from Cambridge, Wisc., just outside of the state capitol of Madison.
"I've always wanted to win here in Chicago, it's only a couple hours of where I grew up, up in Wisconsin. So it feels great to finally get the win here. We've been close a lot. Man, it's been a long week for everybody, so it feels great to finally race and be in victory lane."
NOTES: The last two winners of the Chase opener in Chicago eventually went on to win the Sprint Cup championship in those respective seasons. Tony Stewart did so in 2011 and Brad Keselowski did so last year. Kenseth, who won the championship in 2003 (the last year before the Chase format was implemented), could now potentially make it three-for-three if he is able to hold on to his lead in the standings in the remaining nine races.