In the buildup to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a frequently discussed topic centered on Hendrick Motorsports' recent struggles and whether drivers Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott would be competitive throughout NASCAR's playoffs.
Although it was just one Chase race of 10, Johnson and Elliott both provided indication on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway that Hendrick may be breaking out of its slump and a deep playoff run may be in the offering for the six-time champion Johnson and the rookie Elliott.
Johnson led an event-high 118 laps, his highest number of laps led in a race this season. Meanwhile, Elliott led 75 and were it not for Michael McDowell crashing with four laps remaining, he likely would've won the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.
That late caution erased Elliott's comfortable lead over second-place and eventual winner Martin Truex Jr., who admitted he would not have caught the 20-year-old seeking his first career victory. But on the ensuing restart, Truex jumped into the top position and drove away. Elliott finished third.
"Expect it nothing is yours until it's over," Elliott said. "We have all watched this stuff long enough we know these races don't go green that long. We see more cautions come out at the end of these races than we do not. That is just part of it."
Still trying to come to terms with a pit road speeding penalty that ended his victory bid, Johnson wasn't as pragmatic as his teammate postrace. He was caught speeding during a green-flag stop with 33 scheduled laps remaining, requiring an extra trip down pit road.
The penalty especially grated Johnson, who had frequently stressed recently the need to minimize mistakes and how important it is get the best finish possible every week throughout the playoffs. But instead of challenging for the win, he had to scramble just to finish 12th.
"I was dumbfounded that happened," Johnson said. "You can't argue it, maybe a mistake on our part somewhere, definitely a mistake on my side, but I by no way shape or form thought that I was speeding. I was probably the slowest down pit road all day just to try to avoid it and got nailed.
"I just screwed up."
Though frustrated with the turn of events, Johnson was encouraged by the speed he and Elliott demonstrated.
"We're proud of that (speed)," Johnson said. "We're proud of the run we had today."
Historically NASCAR's dominant organization, the Hendrick Chevrolets have been surpassed this season by the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing. Truex's win Sunday was Toyota's 14th in 27 races, while Hendrick owns just two wins on the year (both earlier in the season by Johnson).
Hendrick's inadequacies were especially noticeable during a three-week stretch in the middle of summer where its four drivers not only failed to score a top-10 finish for the first time since 2011, but didn't even lead a single lap for the first time since the fall of 2001.
That prompted questions of whether Johnson and Elliott would be much of a factor in the Chase, or both among the early eliminations. Speculation Truex roundly dismissed in his winner's press conference on Sunday.
"They lay in the weeds, sandbag," Truex said. "... That's just how they play the game."