Mash The Gas: Chicagoland Preview

The start of the 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. [Russ Lake Photo]

The start of the 2015 Chase for the Spint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway. [Russ Lake Photo]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks into full gear Sunday afternoon as the Chicagoland Speedway hosts the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400
Chicagoland Speedway
400.5 miles (267 laps)
Sunday, Sept. 18
2:30 p.m. ET
NBCSN, 2 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
The Chase field of sixteen drivers is set and a strong start at Chicago is on everyone’s minds as the ten race playoff begins. Any bad luck or poor finish from here on out can seriously damage a driver’s title hopes.

The Chicagoland Speedway is a 1.5 mile oval similar to a majority of the tracks that make up the schedule and its aging pavement has finally given it some character with a few bumps entering turn three. Many of the teams have been experimenting with truck arm designs that affect the rear skew of the cars and NASCAR has issued new strict rules to deal with the issue. The teams are sort of playing with fire to go faster and now if they push it too far, the risk may not be worth the reward, as the new top penalty essentially takes them out of championship contention.

In the regular NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing combined to win half of races and they enter the Chase as heavy favorites.

Anything can happen in the Chase though, and here are some drivers to watch in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway as the Chase begins…

Martin Truex Jr. (Dan Margetta)
Martin Truex Jr. and the #78 Furniture Row team have dominated events on the 1.5 mile tracks this season. The problem is they only have one win to show for it. Truex decimated the field in the Coca-Cola 600 but in earlier races at Texas and Kansas he was just as dominant only to have a self-inflicted mistake by the team ruin the finish. With all that’s on the line in the Chase, this team has to know the importance of a solid complete race and they should be one of the favorites to win on Sunday. Truex enters at 6-1 odds while his track record at Chicago doesn’t really stand out with zero wins and just two top ten finishes. All season long Martin Truex Jr. has been the driver to beat on the 1.5 miles circuits now it is up to the team to seal the deal when it counts as the Chase begins. I’m picking Martin Truex Jr. to win on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick (John Wiedemann)
Kevin Harvick has been one of the best drivers on the circuit this season but the results will not show that. The much publicized issues that seem to happen when he gets to pit lane have derailed countless victories this year. Harvick leads the series in average running position, driver rating and fastest laps run. But, he was only able to pick up two wins this year and he finished half of the races in the top five and only finished outside of the top ten in five events. Crew members have been changed and the fact that Harvick has so many consistent finishes should allow him again to be in the final four when the series hits Homestead. But this weekend is Chicagoland, a track where Harvick has won twice and is a solid top ten in the statistics that NASCAR scores. This weekend is important to place well to hopefully cushion the points in case one of those pit issues pop up in the next two races. Harvick could very well win and some would say that he needs to, in order to continue to the next round.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Matt Kenseth has always raced well at Chicago but it wasn’t until recently when he began to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing that he finally broke into the win column. Kenseth owns the third best driver rating here and has a single win (2013) to go along four top five finishes and sixteen top ten results. He comes into this weekend at 8-1 odds and should be one of the drivers to watch on Sunday. This is sort of a “hometown” race for Matt Kenseth as it is the closest Cup track to his Cambridge, Wisconsin hometown so the cheers should be loud in the grandstand. After all that went down last season, Matt Kenseth is definitely aware of just how important an early Chase round victory is so don’t be surprised to see the #20 Toyota at the front of the field on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (JW)
Denny Hamlin is probably the hottest driver in the series right now and is driving for the hottest team this year, Joe Gibbs Racing. Although Hamlin’s Chicagoland stats are not at the top of the board, he has one win at the track with two top five and four top ten finishes in ten races. Coming in as the defending champion of this race, Hamlin is also the most recent winner in the series and has an eight race streak of top ten finishes. This year has seemed to be the year of streaks and if you are setting your fantasy line-up of betting, you need to be aware of streaks and who is hot. Hamlin’s name is at the top of the list and would be a good pick for the win this weekend. That being said, I pick him to contend but not win. Dan took my choice of this week’s winner.

Jimmie Johnson (DM)
Chicago is one of just four tracks on the tour that Jimmie Johnson has yet to win at and the #48 team has been a bit mediocre heading into the Chase. While he has yet to win here, he does have seven top five finishes and ten finishes in the top ten. Also despite having zero victories, Johnson owns the best Driver Rating at the Chicagoland track and he does have a victory on a 1.5 mile track in 2016, coming back at Atlanta in February. Unlike other years, Jimmie Johnson does not come into the Chase as a heavy title favorite as he enters Chicago at 12-1 odds. However, this team has a knack for rising up when everyone has them down for the count so Jimmie Johnson can’t be forgotten this weekend. The Hendrick Chevrolets have shown increased speed over the past three weeks and Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team should be in the mix on Sunday.

Kyle Busch (JW)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kyle Busch should probably be the pick to win this weekend as he enters the Chase to try to repeat last year’s run. Busch has a victory at Chicagoland and has the second best average running position and driver rating in the series at the track. Along with the victory, Busch has four top five and six top ten finishes in eleven races and has an average finish of 11.4. With four victories in the series this season, Busch is at the top of the standings, tied with rival Brad Keselowski. I’m not picking Busch to win but I expect all of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers to contend for the win this weekend. It’s just that Martin Truex Jr has been awesome at the mile and a half tracks. But if Truex stumbles, which he has, expect Busch to be there to capitalize.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
When we look back at the races held on 1.5 mile tracks this season, one thing that stands out is Brad Keselowski has won at two of them, Las Vegas and Kentucky. Keselowski also has a pretty good record at Chicago having won twice in the last four years. Keselowski comes into Chicago at 10-1 odds and should he and his team stay focused, they could do some damage in the Chase. Keselowski is an aggressive driver so he is known to get into a few scrapes with other drivers now and then. It’s for that reason an early win in the Chase at Chicago is key for Keselowski as it would provide a free pass buffer to the next round should he ruffle some feathers in the coming weeks. I look for Brad Keselowski to put forth an extra effort to get a win early in the Chase and he should be among the favorites on Sunday.

Chase Elliott (JW)
Rookie Chase Elliott is one of a group of young drivers looking to make their mark in NASCAR’s playoffs. Along with Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher, Elliott has shown that there is a new wave of drivers ready to take the checkered flag. While Elliott hasn’t found victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series yet, he has run well and been close a number of times. Can Elliott win this weekend in his debut at the track? Well, he did win his debut at Chicagoland in the Xfinity Series. Normally in Chase races, the Chase drivers rise to the top of the scoring pylon quickly after the green flag falls. It is going to be fun to watch Elliott and the other young guns to see how they respond to the pressure of the Chase. My prediction is that Chase Elliott will win a Chase race this year, it could be this weekend at Chicagoland.

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