More than an hour after its scheduled start time, the first race of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup got underway at Chicagoland Speedway after rain showers had delayed the drop of the green flag.
Pole sitter Joey Logano quickly shot out to an early lead, leaving Brad Keselowski and Juan Pablo Montoya to dice for second place behind him. While Logano paced the field, five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson – who went into the Chase with four straight finishes outside the Top 25 – quickly moved into the Top 5 after starting ninth on the grid.
When the previously announced competition caution came out at Lap 30, Logano was leading, followed by Keselowski in second, Johnson in third, Juan Pablo Montoya in fourth, and Greg Biffle in fifth.
The leaders then came down for their first stops of the day, and the race off pit road went to Johnson, who took two tires. Following him was Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Aric Almirola, who also all took two. Logano, who grabbed four, dropped back to sixth.
Busch actually managed to beat Johnson to the start/finish line on the Lap 38 restart, which is now permitted thanks to NASCAR’s new restart rules. That enabled Busch to lead Lap 37 under the yellow flag and earn a bonus point, but Johnson was able to take the lead back one lap later.
Johnson held the lead up to his next stop under green on Lap 75, but fell back after losing precious time when an official told them that a lugnut was loose on the right rear. The 48 crew frantically indicated otherwise before their driver was allowed back out. Additional problems were suffered in the green cycle by Kurt Busch, who was tagged for speeding on pit road.
Fox Sports’ Bob Dillner caught this bit of radio transmission between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus after the stop:
When the cycle ended, Matt Kenseth came away with the lead, while Johnson fell back to fifth behind Kenseth, Keselowski, Logano and Kyle Busch. As for Kurt Busch, he found himself a lap down in 29th after his penalty.
Kenseth, who has claimed three of his five victories this season on 1.5-mile ovals such as Chicagoland, quickly built a sizable gap over Keselowski, Logano and Johnson, who proceeded to fight among each other for the runner-up spot shortly after the Lap 100 mark.
But on Lap 108, the rains returned just as Cole Whitt and Juan Pablo Montoya made contact in Turn 4, which caused the former to go skidding into the infield grass. The caution came back out with 27 laps left before the race crossed the halfway point at Lap 134.
Three laps later, at Lap 110, the red flag came out and the cars went back to pit road to be quickly covered by teams.