Joliet, Ill. — Johnny Sauter took the checkered flag. Christopher Bell held a trophy.
Ben Rhodes was the real big winner at Chicagoland.
Sauter won the NASCAR Truck Series race Friday night at Chicagoland Speedway and heads into the playoffs trying to win his second straight series championship.
“This is what we needed,” he said. “This is the momentum, this is the shot in the arm.”
Rhodes overcame a penalty on pit road that dropped him a lap back to finish sixth, which was just good enough to take the final playoff spot over Ryan Truex on a tiebreaker. Rhodes claimed the only open spot in the eight-driver field headed into the Chicagoland cutoff race.
“They gave me the (playoff) hat and I’m like, ‘Are you sure this is ours?’ They said we were tied and we got the tiebreaker,” Rhodes said. “I can’t believe it. I’m glad we’re in. Overall, everything worked out for us.”
Truex, the younger brother of Cup star Martin Truex Jr., started on the pole and led 30 laps.
“We did everything we could do besides win,” Truex said.
Bell, who drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports and leads the standings by 21 points over Sauter, was awarded a trophy for being the top driver in the regular season.
But it’s winning it all in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that really counts.
The field is set next week for the playoff opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Cup drivers with more than five years full-time experience were already restricted to 10 races in the Xfinity Series and seven races in the Truck Series. Veterans also are prohibited from competing in the regular-season finale and all playoff races.
John Hunter Nemechek, Matt Crafton, Austin Cindric, Kaz Grala and Chase Briscoe also are in the field. Briscoe was second in the race and is the only Truck driver in the playoff field without a victory this season.
Sauter took the lead with 28 laps left in the No. 21 Chevrolet and won for the second time this season and 15th in 214 career Truck races.
“This thing was unreal on the last run,” Sauter said.
Driving for GMS Racing, Sauter beat Crafton, Bell and Timothy Peters in last season’s finale in which the highest-finisher among the four drivers would take the championship. He showed again he just might be the driver to beat for the title.
Kyle Busch opened his bid for a second NASCAR Cup championship with a lap of 187.963 mph to win the pole Chicagoland Speedway.
Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin will start on the front row and fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. was third. Truex has four wins and the Furniture Row Racing driver is considered the favorite to win his first career Cup title.
NASCAR playoff drivers Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson had the next three spots.
Top 10 spots for other drivers racing for the championship over the final 10 races include: Chase Elliott eighth, Austin Dillon ninth, and Matt Kenseth 10th. Jamie McMurray has the worst starting spot among the 16 drivers in 19th.
Busch and fellow playoff driver Brad Keselowski sniped at each other on Twitter before qualifying over Toyota’s supposed dominance heading into Sunday’s race.