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Geico 400 Preview: Let the Chase Begin

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.

The first race in the 2012 Chase for the Cup is on tap this weekend. NASCAR has chosen to start the Chase at one of the many Sprint Cup Series' intermediate ovals on Sunday afternoon. The stars of NASCAR will head to the Windy City and Chicagoland Speedway for the second installment of the 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 heightened handling sensitivity. The front stretch has 11 degree banking and the back stretch has very flat 5 degree banking. 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 their drivers a car that will handle comfortably enough for the drivers to push them to the edge and make the tough pass. If you have a handling issue at Chicago's oval, you won't be able to man-handle the car like we saw recently at the much more expansive Atlanta Motor Speedway. No, a driver with an ill-handling car has to skate carefully on thin ice until a pit stop and adjustments can be made. Chicagoland Speedway is a challenging and apt facility to have first in our Chase lineup of tracks.

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 seven years or seven races at Chicagoland Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.02052373071,589112.2
Tony Stewart8.12221421561,638111.0
Matt Kenseth12.91801773421,318104.1
Kevin Harvick12.118845941,36198.5
Kyle Busch14.7191781741,27997.8
Jeff Gordon11.923487731,38095.4
Carl Edwards16.3228110561,24992.8
Clint Bowyer10.21711921,01890.7
Mark Martin12.01386919699989.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 11.722063401,19589.2
Greg Biffle18.4153717799588.5
Kurt Busch14.118958671.20087.8
Martin Truex Jr.18.220274281,10086.7
Denny Hamlin19.216422090381.8
Ryan Newman17.0153192798481.0
David Reutimann20.4106455261080.6
Jeff Burton16.7140356083279.4
Brad Keselowski18.35310426475.8
Kasey Kahne18.912741280275.3
David Ragan16.21094058174.3

Chevrolet drivers have been pretty dominant on this oval since the Sprint Cup Series started racing here in 2001. Chevy drivers have captured six of the last eight victories at this 1.5-mile oval. 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 Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin is racing entering the playoffs, we could likely see another Toyota Camry in victory lane on Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota won at the intermediate oval in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, so he could post his first career Chicago victory on Sunday afternoon. 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 six wins and led 1,212 laps of the 2,940 laps run at the facility. These drivers have led a whopping 41 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 Greg Biffle's shoulders. This oval is among Kenseth's best tracks on the circuit, and the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited here Kenseth won the pole position and led 46 laps. Not to be outdone, Dodge has some credible influence in the outcome of this weekend's race. Brad Keselowski has been about the closest thing to a "ringer" that we have on these lesser-banked intermediate ovals. Wins in the last couple seasons at Kansas and Kentucky should be more than convincing evidence for the Penske Racing star. 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

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. So, at anytime the Penske Racing team can show up with a race-winning car. This style of intermediate ovals has been a favorite of Keselowski the last couple seasons. As it relates to Chicago this weekend, let's not forget it was the similar oval in Kentucky this summer that was the most recent of Keselowski's three victories this season. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has yet to post a top finish at Chicagoland Speedway, but now that the championship is on the line, he should deliver a great performance.

Denny Hamlin
The suddenly large and in charge No. 11 Toyota team hopes to toss their hat in the ring for the Sprint Cup championship in 2012. Hamlin has won two of the last three races entering this event, and he had a dominant car at Richmond this past weekend. Two of his six career starts at Chicagoland Speedway have resulted in Top-10 finishes, but don't let that discourage you. Hamlin has been on his game of late, and his victory at the similar oval in Kansas earlier this season is a very good sign. Crew Chief Darian Grubb led Tony Stewart to victory lane at this oval last season and he can do the same with Hamlin this Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson will be one of a handful of Chevy drivers to make a strong bid for the win this weekend at Chicago's oval. The five-time Sprint Cup champion hasn't won in 10 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 350 career laps at Chicagoland Speedway and he's come away with five Top 5s in those 10 starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star is kicking off his Chase campaign in search of his mind-boggling sixth Sprint Cup Series championship, so you can bet crew chief Chad Knaus and the boys will be in top form for the Geico 400.

Jeff Gordon
Coming off a great performance at Richmond, how can we not like Gordon this weekend at Chicago? His last-second clinching of a Chase berth by driving the wheels of the No. 24 Chevy could set the tone for this season's Chase. Gordon has 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 Hendrick team. His ridiculous 55 percent Top 5 rate and one career victory at Chicagoland Speedway are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. Gordon has finished in the Top 3 in two of his last three trips to this 1.5-mile oval.

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

Tony Stewart
The resurgent No. 14 team of Stewart will be hard to stop this Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. After a recent slump that dogged the team for several weeks, the owner/driver put in a great performance at Richmond this past week. Smoke is heating up and becoming a factor as this season's Chase for the Cup begins. Stewart is focused on defending his championship and pursuing a fourth career win at Chicagoland Speedway, but he won't be far out of victory lane if he comes up short. With nine career Top-10 finishes in 11 starts at the heartland oval, Stewart is the safest play in the field.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick has had a tough season in 2012, but there is very good reason for hope based on the last two weeks. Coming off the Top 5 at Atlanta and the Top 10 at Richmond, the No. 29 team brings a lot of momentum to Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday. Harvick has two wins and seven Top 10s in the 11 races that the Windy City has hosted. The veteran driver should feel right at home this Sunday afternoon given 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.

Clint Bowyer
After winning his second race of the season at Richmond this past weekend, we have to give Bowyer the very serious championship contender label. Fortunately for the Michael Waltrip Racing star, the Sprint Cup Series visits one of his best ovals for the first race of the Chase for the Cup. Chicagoland Speedway has yielded an amazing five Top-10 finishes in six career starts for Bowyer. While all that success was amassed with Richard Childress Racing and not with MWR that should be of little concern. Bowyer is on fire right now and visiting one of his favorite tracks on the circuit.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt will put aside the pressure of racing in the Chase and thinking about the championship and focus on a good run at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend. Intermediate ovals have been great venues for the NASCAR icon this season. Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that is a perfect six-for-six in Top 10s on the 1.5-mile oval portion of the schedule. He hasn't led many laps at these tracks in 2012, but he's been earning workman-like Top 10s. Earnhardt is a one-time Chicago winner and he finished third in this event one year ago.

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

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has been the top 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 close to 350 career laps at this 1.5-mile oval and he has four Top 10s in those starts. With fourth- and seventh-place finishes at Kansas and Kentucky this summer, intermediate ovals have been the No. 17 Ford team's best tracks. Now that Kenseth is racing with the championship in the balance, we should see top performance in the Geico 400.

Martin Truex Jr.
In addition to Clint Bowyer, this 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 six Top 10s in the last 10 races. Intermediate ovals have been a key part of Truex's success and making the Chase field this season. Four of his six starts on the 1.5-mile ovals have netted Top 10 results. His Chicago dossier holds respectable stats with Top-20 finishes in his last four trips to Northern Illinois. Don't hesitate to deploy Truex in your weekly lineup leagues this Sunday, as career-best Chicago finish should be in store.

Kasey Kahne
The Hendrick Motorsports star will get another crack at the championship in 2012, and it all begins with the intermediate oval in Joliet, Illinois. These style of tracks have typically been among Kahne's best ovals on the circuit. Up until the last few seasons, Chicago had been a real puzzle for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet. However, Kahne dismissed that notion by turning in solid third- and sixth-place efforts at this oval in 2009 and 2010. His one victory and four Top 10s on intermediate ovals this season are all the performance endorsements that you need.

Mark Martin
The veteran driver has picked up his game in recent weeks. It all started with a Top-10 finish at Atlanta a couple weeks ago and had led to a great run at Richmond this past weekend. Martin has been so-so on the intermediate ovals this season, with two Top 10s in five starts. Those numbers would be better, but two engine failures have dinged Martin's record on these style tracks. The driver of the No. 55 Toyota has good career stats at Chicagoland Speedway. He is a one-time winner at this facility and has five Top-10 finishes in 11 starts at the 1.5-mile oval. Martin finished ninth in this event one year ago.

Sam Hornish Jr.
The interim driver of the No. 22 Dodge is absolutely on fire right now. Forget the fact that Hornish was skipped over by owner Roger Penske for driving this team in 2013. The journeyman driver isn't showing any disdain on the track. In fact, Hornish is shining with a pair of 11th-place finishes each of the last two events. He should aim high at Chicago this weekend and continue to bolster his Sprint Cup resume. Hornish has only three career starts at the Windy City oval, with poor finishes in all. That should change this weekend as this surging driver takes to the banks of Chicagoland Speedway.

Trevor Bayne
The part-time Wood Brothers Racing driver will suit up for the 11th time this weekend for the Geico 400. To this point in the season Bayne has two Top-10 finishes and he's shown some real ability in just a limited slate of races. The young driver has one Top 10 and two Top 20s in four starts on the intermediate ovals this season. Bayne has only one career Cup start at the Chicago oval, and it was a 23rd-place finish in this event one year ago. Considering that the driver of the No. 21 Ford finished 16th recently at Atlanta, we're will to bet he'll challenge the Top 15 at Chicago.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Joey Logano
After last week's disappointing 30th-place performance at Richmond, we're downgrading Logano even further than normal on this intermediate oval. With only one Top 10 in the last eight races, 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 18.0 is not what we expect for this driver and team. That's a "bench this driver" signal heading into the Geico 400.

Ryan Newman
Newman has a great Chicago resume with one victory and six Top 10s in 10 career starts at the heartland oval. However, there is sufficient recent evidence to be pessimistic for the No. 39 Chevrolet team this weekend. Newman has struggled all season long on the intermediate ovals. With only one Top-10 finish (Las Vegas in March) in six starts this season, it's been one heart break after another. Newman's most recent work on these style tracks has been disappointing 34th- and 35th-place finishes at Kentucky and Atlanta.

David Ragan
Ragan's season of struggles will continue this week at Chicago. His six starts this season on the intermediate tracks has fallen short of even the Front Row Motorsports team's expectations. No Top-20 finishes and three finishes outside the Top 30 in six starts. Ragan was a pretty solid driver in his five-start career at Chicago with owner Jack Roush, however, those days are long over. The driver of the No. 34 Ford will slog his way to another poor finish in Sunday's Geico 400.

Kyle Busch
The Chase has eluded Busch once again in 2012. The meltdown at Richmond last week caused the Joe Gibbs Racing star to loose his grip on the second of two wild card spots for the NASCAR playoffs. We've seen this in the past with Busch. Negativity tends to breed negativity with him; it's just the way he's wired. We expect Busch to plod and shuffle his way through the remainder of the season. Considering his record of two Top 10s in seven career starts at Chicagoland Speedway (none in the last three trips) we feel confident Busch is a driver to pass on this weekend.