JOLIET, Ill. — Denny Hamlin's late gamble paid off in Sunday's Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hamlin skipped a pit stop and fresh tires, and that strategic call put him in position to overtake rivals Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon on a turn with four laps left.
He rolled on from there to win by nearly one second.
"I knew we had a really fast car, but I didn't think starting in the second row with old tires we were going to have a chance." said Hamlin, who is driving with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. "But an opportunity came to make a move, we capitalized and our car took off."
Carl Edwards also moved up after the restart and finished second.
Hamlin's victory in the MyAFibRisk.com 400 at the Joliet, Ill., track was his second of the season. It earned him an automatic berth in the 12-driver Contender round, which begins Oct. 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
"I thought Denny was a sitting duck; I thought he was mine," Edwards said. "I was definitely surprised at Denny's speed at the end."
Busch took third, Ryan Newman was fourth, and Gordon slipped to 14th. Defending Chicagoland champion Brad Keselowski finished eighth.
"[We] probably weren't quite a top-five car but almost stole a top-five," Keselowski said.
The victory was Hamlin's first at Chicagoland Speedway and his fourth top-10 finish in 11 Joliet races.
Hamlin started 29th and was a lap behind though much of the race after an early spinout.
"We came back from adversity and did a lot of great things throughout the day," he said.
The brothers Busch — Kurt and Kyle — dueled down the stretch while Gordon also had designs on a win in a three-driver sprint after the penultimate pit-stop opportunity.
But debris on the track triggered a caution with 10 laps to go and set up a chance for Hamlin to move ahead.
"Last year people came from deep in the field to contend," said Dave Rogers, Hamlin's crew chief. "I knew it was possible, I knew we had speed and I had a lot of faith in that driver."
Hamlin suffered his knee injury earlier this month while playing basketball. He has had treatment but no surgery and insisted he felt fine Sunday.
Reigning champion Kevin Harvick, who claimed the pole with the fastest speed in Friday's practice rounds, was knocked out Sunday after a spinout.
He hit the wall and then limped to the garage with extensive damage after a restart on the 135th lap.
The trouble began when Harvick and Jimmie Johnson appeared to bump each other, causing what initially appeared to be minor damage to Harvick's left rear panel. It cascaded from there.
Harvick eventually returned with a repaired car, trailing by 57 laps. He finished 42nd.
Tempers flared after the race as Harvick confronted Johnson in a parking lot outside the track. Video showed Harvick shoving Johnson as the drivers exchanged words before being separated.
Sunday featured a nearly full grandstand — possibly the biggest crowd in five years of Sprint Cup events in Joliet. No official attendance figure was provided.
The MyAFibRisk.com 400 was the first of 10 races in NASCAR's Chase playoff, which concludes Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami.
Sunday's run included not only the 16 Chase qualifiers but also 27 other drivers racing for pride, cash or to upset the field.
The field will be trimmed by four drivers after every third race until only four qualifiers remain for the winner-take-all finale.