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Geico 400 Preview: Here Comes the Chase

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

For the first race in the Chase 2011, we get a shake up in the usual schedule. Normally we would kickoff the 10-race playoff at the small over in Loudon, New Hampshire. Not this season. NASCAR has chosen to start the Chase for the Cup at one of the many Sprint Cup Series' intermediate ovals this weekend. The stars of NASCAR will head to the Windy City and Chicagoland Speedway for the inaugural Geico 400. The 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Illinois boasts the same characteristics of many of the intermediate ovals on the circuit, but with a twist. Whereas Charlotte, Texas and Atlanta are steeply banked, Chicagoland Speedway is somewhat shallower. Turns 1 through 4 provide 18-degree banking, which gives the drivers some high speeds but also some handling sensitivity. The groove is limited in width and passing is a lot trickier than most tri-ovals as a result. The crew chiefs will be challenged this weekend to give the drivers a car that will handle comfortably enough for the drivers to push them to the edge and make the tough pass.

Since this will be our first and only race of the season at Chicago, we need to visit the recent historical statistics for this oval. While Chicagoland Speedway is similar to many of the intermediate ovals on the circuit, it still has enough characteristics which make it unique. So we'll need to study the loop stats very carefully to identify the track specialists at Chicago. When we combine that information with current hot streaks coming into the Chase for the Cup, and drivers who have fared well this year on 1.5-mile tracks, we should be able to easily develop this week's driver selections. The loop stats shown below cover the last six years or six races at Chicagoland Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.51691872681,326112.0
Tony Stewart9.31961241211,446110.4
Brian Vickers7.51134112936107.3
Matt Kenseth11.51601562961,052102.4
Jeff Gordon9.823187731,332100.7
Kevin Harvick13.814139941,16298.5
Kyle Busch13.5154731671,03198.3
Mark Martin12.51116619688691.2
Clint Bowyer10.813015280290.8
Carl Edwards18.3187931798589.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 13.217961401,04688.9
Greg Biffle17.2140547790687.7
Denny Hamlin16.816422090287.7
David Reutimann17.5106455261087.5
Martin Truex Jr.18.2169431496787.0
Kurt Busch15.515623393381.7
A.J. Allmendinger13.3773038380.7
Jeff Burton17.0127356077880.3
Ryan Newman18.512012971776.7
Kasey Kahne20.012341279676.2


Chevrolet drivers have been pretty dominant on this oval since the Sprint Cup Series started racing here in 2001. However, Toyota teams have had something to say about that in the last few visits. Kyle Busch, and most recently David Reutimann have spoiled Chevy's victory lane celebrations at Chicagoland Speedway. Considering how well championship standings leader Kyle Busch is racing entering the playoffs, we could likely see another Toyota Camry in victory lane on Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota won at this intermediate oval in 2008, so he's no stranger to taking the trophy here. When we take a close look at the historical stats we see that Chevrolet drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart love racing at Chicagoland Speedway. This group has captured five wins and led 1,138 laps of the 2,670 laps run at the facility. These drivers have led a whopping 43 percent of all the laps ever raced at this intermediate oval. It goes without saying that Johnson, Gordon, Harvick and Stewart are worthy fantasy racing candidates for the Geico 400. They're all in the Championship Chase, so motivation won't be an issue. If Roush Fenway Racing and Ford hope to steal Chevy and Toyota's thunder in the Windy City, the task will primarily rest on Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards' shoulders. This oval is among Kenseth's best tracks on the circuit, and the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited here Edwards raced to a brilliant runner-up finish. We'll take a look at this season and some past history at Chicagoland Speedway, and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jeff Gordon –
Coming off a great performance at Richmond, how can we not like Gordon this weekend at Chicago? He's been a steady performer on intermediate ovals the past few seasons, and these 1.5-mile tracks typically bring out the best in the No. 24 Chevrolet team. Gordon has three Top 10's and one win in his last three visits to intermediate ovals. His ridiculous 60 percent Top 5 rate and one career victory at Chicagoland Speedway are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. The last time we Gordon in action at Chicago he led 47 laps and battled David Reutimann for the win.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson will be one of the handful of Chevy drivers to throw his hat in the ring for the win this weekend. The defending Sprint Cup champion hasn't won in nine career starts at Chicago, but he's managed to maintain some pretty stellar stats at the intermediate oval over the years. Johnson has led well over 300 laps through the years at Chicagoland Speedway and he's come away with five Top 5's in those nine starts. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion is heating up entering this season's Chase for the Cup, so he will assert himself on Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch –
The championship standings leader already has four victories this season, and he's aiming for a fifth as the series visits Chicago to start the Chase. The No. 18 team has given Busch good cars on intermediate ovals this season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star won from the pole in a dominating performance at the similar oval in Kentucky this summer. Busch also won at this oval in 2008. Considering how strong JGR equipment has been in 2011, Busch could be starting his 10-race run to his first Sprint Cup Series championship.

Kevin Harvick –
Harvick has had an incredible season to this point. Coming off the victory at Richmond this past weekend, the No. 29 brings a lot of momentum to Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday. Harvick has two wins and six Top 10's in the 10 races that the Windy City has hosted. The veteran driver should feel right at home this Sunday afternoon give how much success he's had at this 1.5-mile oval. It would be shocking not to see Harvick battling with the leaders in Sunday afternoon's Geico 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Tony Stewart –
The surging No. 14 team of Stewart will be hard to stop this Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. After a summer slump that dogged the team for several weeks, the owner/driver is heating up and becoming a factor as this season's Chase for the Cup begins. Stewart is focused on challenging for his third career win at Chicagoland Speedway, but he won't be far out of victory lane if he comes up short. Smoke's recent third-place finish at Atlanta is illustrative of where the team's intermediate oval program is at this point in time.

Kurt Busch –
The suddenly relevant No. 22 team hopes to keep their hat in the ring for the Sprint Cup championship in 2011. Busch is riding a two-race Top 5 streak entering this event. As he continues to shore up his position in the Championship Chase, we visit a very good track for the Penske Racing veteran this Sunday afternoon. Five of his 10 career starts at Chicagoland Speedway have resulted in Top-10 finishes. When Busch is on his game, no driver can be hotter than he on intermediate ovals. He should keep his Top 5 string alive after Sunday's Geico 400.

Carl Edwards –
The Roush Fenway Racing star will get another crack at the championship in 2011, and it all begins with the intermediate oval in Joliet, Illinois. These style of tracks have typically been among Edwards' best ovals on the circuit. Up until last season, Chicago had been a real puzzle for the No. 99 team. However, Edwards dismissed that notion by turning in an awesome runner-up finish in last year's Lifelock.com 400. His three Top 5's in his last four trips to 1.5-mile ovals are all the performance endorsements that you need.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth has been the premiere driver for manufacturer Ford at Chicago for years, and this season should be no different. He is Roush Fenway Racing and Ford's most consistent driver at Chicagoland Speedway. Kenseth has led 300 career laps at this 1.5-mile oval and he has four Top 10's in those starts. With a pair of sixth-place finishes at Kansas and Kentucky this summer, intermediate ovals have been the No. 17 Ford team's best tracks.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Chicago who can provide a solid finish

Ryan Newman –
The veteran driver has picked up his game in recent weeks. It all started with a Top-5 finish at Michigan a few weeks ago and had led to great runs at Bristol and Richmond. Newman is a one-time winner at Chicagoland Speedway and he sports a steady 16.8 average finish position at the Windy City oval. The No. 39 team is in the Chase and on a roll, so they should unload a pretty good race car this weekend. Newman has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last four trips to Joliet, Illinois.

Brad Keselowski –
While Keselowski has cooled just a tad in the last couple races, he's still running up front with the leaders each week and posting Top-10 finishes. Take into consideration his recent performance at Richmond. Keselowski raced in the Top 10 all night long and soldiered home to a respectable 12th-place finish in the Wonderful Pistachios 400. That is a mediocre performance for this driver and team right now. As it relates to Chicago this weekend, let's not forget it was the similar oval in Kansas this summer that was the first of Keselowski's three victories this season. Another career-best effort at this oval is on tap.

David Reutimann –
The 2010 Chicago winner is back this weekend to defend his crown. This has been an up-and-down season for Reutimann, but he'll surely be looking forward to Sunday afternoon's race at Chicagoland Speedway. Intermediate ovals have yielded a lot of success for this MWR driver, and this oval is no exception. Reutimann boasts a steady 17.5 average finish in his four career starts at this facility. The driver of the No. 00 Toyota finished runner-up at Kentucky Speedway a few weeks ago, so don't be caught off guard by his potential for the Geico 400.

Brian Vickers –
Another Toyota driver pegged for success this weekend is Vickers and his No. 83 team. The Red Bull Racing veteran has long been a good performer at Chicago's 1.5-mile oval. Vickers won the pole for this event two years ago and has posted Top-10 finishes in three of his last four starts at Chicagoland Speedway. He posted a surprising 11th-place finish at the intermediate oval in Atlanta just two weeks ago, so the team seems to be finally turning the corner this season.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The other Michael Waltrip Racing driver also makes a steady fantasy racing play for the Geico 400. Truex has been on a bit of a streak since the middle stages of the summer. The driver of the No. 56 Toyota has three Top 10's in the last eight races. Large ovals have mostly produced Top 15 or Top 20 results for Truex this season. His Chicago dossier holds respectable stats with finishes of ninth-, 16th- and 11th-place in his last three trips to Northern Illinois. Don't hesitate to deploy Truex in your weekly lineup leagues this Sunday.

A.J. Allmendinger –
The No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team has been remarkably consistent this season. While Allmendinger isn't racing for wins, he is running with the leaders and bringing home Top-15 finishes almost every week. We expect this solid, yet unspectacular level of performance to continue this Sunday afternoon at Chicago. In three career starts in the Windy City, Allmendinger has a pair of 13th-place finishes and a 14th-place effort to his credit. That's similar to what you should expect to see in this installment of the Geico 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Joey Logano –
After last week's disappointing performance (DNF due to engine failure) at Richmond, we're downgrading Logano even further than normal on this intermediate oval. Now mired in a four-race Top 10 drought, it's clear that the No. 20 team isn't carrying the luck that they had earlier in the season. Good performances have been mixed with several disappointments the second half of this summer. Logano's average finish at Chicagoland Speedway of close to 19.0 is not what we expect for this driver and team. That's a "bench this driver" sign heading into this event.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne has had some incredibly fast cars in recent weeks, but luck has been anything but consistent. He won the pole position at Atlanta two weeks ago, but suffered the DNF due to engine failure. Kahne followed that with a good qualifying effort at Richmond this past weekend, but yet another DNF by the end of 400 laps. His 29 percent Top 10 rate at Chicagoland Speedway is nothing to write home about, so all indicators point towards staying away from the No. 4 Toyota team at Chicago.

Robby Gordon –
If there's a Sprint Cup Series regular that is just going through the motions, it could be Gordon and the No. 7 team. Sponsorship money has been drying up for the last couple seasons now, and he has been dangerously close to falling outside the Top 35 in the standings all season long. Gordon's 16th-place finish in the Daytona 500 is about the only bright spot for this small race team in 2011. Gordon has essentially become a start-and-park driver over the second half of the summer. We don't advise you deploy the veteran driver for this Sunday's 400-mile event at Chicagoland Speedway.

Clint Bowyer –
Historical statistics speak very well of Bowyer's performance at Chicago. The Richard Childress Racing driver has four Top 10's in just five career visits to the 1.5-mile track. However, this No. 33 team is in turmoil right now. Bowyer missed the Chase for the Cup and has been totally distracted by his contract status at Richard Childress Racing. He's only posted one Top-10 finish in his last 10 races, and the frustration is mounting. Despite his great stats at Chicago, we can't recommend the slumping Bowyer and No. 33 Chevy team this Sunday afternoon.