40 Preview: Let the Chase Begin 40 Preview: Let the Chase Begin

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The first race in the 2014 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 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 less banked. 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 at this oval has to drive patiently with the car until a pit stop and adjustments can be made. Chicagoland Speedway is a challenging and appropriate facility to have first in our Chase lineup of tracks that crowns the champion.

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 nine years or nine races at Chicagoland Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson10.92743515192,085117.1
Tony Stewart7.92661541591,843109.8
Matt Kenseth12.12412224331,733105.4
Kyle Busch12.12761242411,793102.7
Jeff Gordon13.8322133951,76996.9
Kevin Harvick11.126450961,63796.4
Brian Vickers13.514343121,07195.0
Brad Keselowski12.6145858275393.6
Clint Bowyer10.02812681,47291.4
Carl Edwards16.0316112571,57090.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.8.0352019089.9
Greg Biffle17.620775791,30887.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 13.928265421,53787.4
Martin Truex Jr.17.026679281,46487.2
Kurt Busch15.023264671,40086.2
Aric Almirola15.0612433485.8
Ryan Newman14.923522281,31183.2
Kasey Kahne16.31977521,29682.8
Denny Hamlin20.52362311,29381.2
Joey Logano19.484283245980.7

Chevrolet drivers were pretty dominant on this oval since the Sprint Cup Series started racing here in 2001. Drivers from this manufacturer captured six of the first seven victories at this 1.5-mile oval. However, other teams have had something to say about that in the last few seasons. Toyota drivers have won three of the last six races at Chicagoland Speedway with the with the teams of Joe Gibbs Racing taking two of those trophies. Last year it was JGR newcomer, Matt Kenseth, who came away with the hardware after 400 miles of action at this intermediate oval. When we take a close look at the historical stats we see that Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Kenseth love racing at Chicagoland Speedway. This group has captured five wins, 27 Top 5s and led 1,695 laps at the Illinois oval. It goes without saying that these handful of stars are worthy fantasy racing candidates for the 400. All five are in the Championship Chase, so motivation won't be an issue. If Ford hopes to steal Chevy and Toyota's thunder in the Windy City, the task will primarily rest on Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano's shoulders. Keselowski won at this oval two seasons ago in a Dodge for Penske Racing, and Logano has been one of the toughest competitors in the series on intermediate ovals this season. The Penske duo has led more laps (648) and captured more wins (3) on intermediate ovals this season than any other team combined. 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 in the opening race of the Chase.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski -
The 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion will set out to claim his second championship in NASCAR's top division. It all starts with a good performance at Chicagoland Speedway. He won here in his championship season two years ago and will hope to repeat that performance Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is peaking at the right time as we enter the Chase and coming off the very impressive win at Richmond. Keselowski has led close to 400 laps on these style ovals this season, and picked up wins at Las Vegas and Kentucky. The forecast going into Chicago looks pretty good if you're this Penske Racing star.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has had a good season in 2014, and there's been good reason to be even more optimistic heading into the Chase. With runner-up finishes earlier in the summer at Kansas and Charlotte, the No. 4 team has been a real threat on these intermediate ovals. Harvick has two wins and seven Top 5s in his 13 starts at the Windy City oval. The veteran driver should feel right at home this Sunday afternoon given how much success he's had at this facility. Considering that the competition is for all the marbles with the start of the Chase, it would be shocking not to see Harvick battling with the leaders in Sunday afternoon's Chicago race.

Jeff Gordon -
Coming off a great runner-up performance at Richmond, how can we not like Gordon this weekend at Chicago? With a victory and runner-up finish in the last four races entering this weekend, the veteran driver comes to RIR in top form. 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 Chevrolet team. His one career victory and six Top-5 finishes are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. Gordon is seeking his first championship since the 2001 season, so you know he'll be racing with real purpose this weekend.

Joey Logano -
After last week's sixth-place performance at Richmond, Logano cemented his spot in the Chase for the second time in his career. Now he has a lot to race for as the series comes to Chicago's intermediate oval. Logano has been rock solid on these style tracks in 2014 with one victory and three Top-5 finishes in six starts. With 252 laps led on the 1.5-mile oval circuit, we're used to seeing the No. 22 Ford race up front at these tracks. Logano won the pole for this event one year ago and led 32 laps for an engine failure ended his day early. We expect Logano to be racing with the leaders this Sunday afternoon in the 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been the top driver for manufacturer Toyota all season long. With 10 Top-5 and 16 Top-10 finishes entering Chicago weekend, he's been the most consistent driver this season for this manufacturer as we kickoff the Chase for the Cup. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a top performer on intermediate ovals all season with a perfect six-for-six in Top-10 finishes. He has led close to 450 career laps at this 1.5-mile oval and he has five Top 10s in those starts. Coming off the runner-up finish at Atlanta a couple weeks ago, the veteran driver is hitting his stride on the cookie cutters. Now that Kenseth is racing with the championship in the balance, we should see a top performance in the 400.

Kurt Busch -
The new No. 41 SHR team made the Chase in their first season in existence. Coming off the 2013 season where he put Furniture Row Racing in the Chase for the first time, it's no surprise. It's been an up-and-down season for Busch, but has been turning much more positive down the stretch. Busch looks to kick off his Chase campaign with another successful run at Chicagoland Speedway. The veteran driver has some decent Chicago stats to fall back on. Busch's seven Top 10s in 13 career starts works out to a respectable 54-percent rate at the facility. We say his odds are better than that this weekend at the Windy City oval.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson will be one of a handful of Chevy drivers to make a strong start this weekend at Chicago's oval. He should be well over the spell of dehydration that he suffered after the Richmond race last weekend. The six-time Sprint Cup champion hasn't won in 11 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 500 career laps at Chicagoland Speedway and he's come away with seven Top 5s in those 12 starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star is kicking off his Chase campaign in search of his mind-boggling seventh Sprint Cup Series championship, so you can bet crew chief Chad Knaus and the boys will be in top form for the 400.

Ryan Newman -
With his Top-10 finish at Richmond last Saturday night, the veteran SHR driver cemented his spot in the Chase for the Cup. That should provide a boost to his team's morale coming to Chicagoland Speedway. Newman has a great Chicago resume with one victory and eight Top 10s in 12 career starts at the heartland oval. That bodes well for one of the final drivers admitted to the Chase field. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has three Top 10s on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season, including a brilliant seventh-place recently at Atlanta. It may be a Cinderella story, but we like Newman's chances at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend.

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

Clint Bowyer -
The big question heading to Chicago is how will Bowyer hold up mentally after missing the Chase field at Richmond? It will be a distraction all weekend for the Michael Waltrip Racing star, but we believe he'll plow through the questions and focus on the race. Bowyer doesn't have a championship to race for, but getting down to business won't be too hard once the distraction is set aside and the engines fire up. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota has seven Top 10s in eight career starts at Chicago, so getting back up to speed shouldn't be too difficult. We expect to see Bowyer mixing it up at the front this Sunday afternoon.

Tony Stewart -
Despite his personal issues and current distractions, Stewart has some tremendous upside this weekend. Chicago ranks as one of the best ovals in his Sprint Cup Series resume. It's been two long years since his last start here since the leg injury that sidelined him much of 2013, but Smoke should feel right at home. He has three career victories at this intermediate oval, and an amazing 10 Top-10 finishes in 12 starts. That works out to a ridiculous 83-percent rate. While the state of the No. 14 team is unstable at best this weekend, Stewart presents the upside that we simply can't ignore in this 400-mile event.

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 recently piloted the No. 88 Chevrolet to a respectable 11th-place finish at Atlanta. Two of his last three trips to Chicagoland Speedway have netted Top-10 finishes so optimism has to be pretty high in the Hendrick Motorsports camp this weekend. Earnhardt should post one of his classic Top-10 performances in the 400.

Kasey Kahne -
The Atlanta winner comes to Chicago energized and ready to make a run at his first championship. Kahne picked a good time to rediscover his winning ways, and it may pay off in November with him hoisting the Sprint Cup. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet owns two Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to the 1.5-mile oval outside Chicago. That has to give the Hendrick Motorsports veteran a shot of confidence. He's not led many laps on the intermediate ovals this season, but the finishes have been good. He has four Top 10s in the six events on ovals this style this season. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis should have a good setup and plan for the Chicago oval.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has had a strong season despite missing the Chase field. Menard's 11 Top-10 finishes are a personal best and we still have 10 races to go for him to pad the total. He's likely headed for a personal best finish in the final championship standings. Chicago should be just another stepping stone on the path. Menard doesn't have the best career numbers here but his intermediate oval outings have been strong this season. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet has three Top-10 finishes in the six races to-date on these 1.5-mile ovals. That should be good enough to endorse a fantasy start for Menard at the Windy City and a very likely Top-15 finish.

Aric Almirola -
The light switch may finally be flipping on for the promising Richard Petty Motorsports driver. Almirola recently collected a Top 10 at the similar oval in Atlanta, and he's fresh off a Top-10 finish with his great performance at Richmond. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has loads of talent, and his first berth in the Chase for the Cup attests to this fact, but now it looks like he's finally getting a feel for these Cup cars and developing some chemistry at this level with crew chief Trent Owens. A Top-15 finish should be in store for the 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin -
The Hamlin saga of inconsistency will continue at Chicago. The puzzling performance issues are still nagging the team after a disappointing 21st-place finish at Richmond this past week. Hamlin has never been that strong at the Chicago oval, so prospects for a turnaround this weekend look pretty bleak. He has only two Top-10 finishes in eight career starts at the 1.5-mile oval with a high 20.5 average finish. There are much better options in your weekly lineup leagues than the struggling No. 11 Toyota team.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle and the rest of the Roush Fenway Racing stable had a mysterious power outage last weekend at Richmond. He normally is a top performer on intermediate tracks, but 2014 has been a different story. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has been below average this season on these style tracks with only two Top 10s in the six events to-date. That works out to a 14.8 average finish for this high profile driver. Biffle's one Top 10 in 11 career starts at Chicagoland Speedway are hardly a ringing endorsement of his success at this facility. It's best to play the odds and history in this case.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver has one career start at Chicagoland Speedway, and it was a respectable eighth-place finish one year ago. Things may be quite different this time around for the driver of the No. 17 Ford. The intermediate ovals have been a real puzzle for Stenhouse this season. With only one Top-20 finish in six starts, the average is coming up way short at 24.3. He's yet to finish on the lead lap on the 1.5-mile ovals even once this season. Considering the three-driver Roush stable struggled greatly at Richmond this past weekend, things are not looking good coming to the Chicago oval.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing driver comes to Chicago not as a Chase participant, but trying to keep it together in the wake of a very tough season with his new team. We're visiting one of Truex's favorite ovals, but that may not even be enough to support a fantasy start for this driver at Chicago. The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has no Top-10 finishes in the six intermediate oval races of 2014 and a lowly 20.0 average finish. These style ovals have been a key part of Truex's success in the past, but they simply haven't been there for him this season.

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Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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