Overton's 400 Preview: Welcome to the Windy City

Overton's 400 Preview: Welcome to the Windy City

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

NASCAR offers a shakeup in the usual schedule this weekend. For several seasons the competitors of the Monster Energy Cup Series have kicked off the Chase for the Cup playoffs at Chicago's intermediate oval. However, this season the sanctioning body has moved this race to mid-summer and replaced the first race of the Chase with a new, second date at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This Sunday afternoon the stars of NASCAR will head to the Windy City and Chicagoland Speedway for the Overton's 400.

The 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Ill., 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 forgiving Charlotte Motor Speedway. No, a driver with an ill-handling car at this oval has to drive patiently

NASCAR offers a shakeup in the usual schedule this weekend. For several seasons the competitors of the Monster Energy Cup Series have kicked off the Chase for the Cup playoffs at Chicago's intermediate oval. However, this season the sanctioning body has moved this race to mid-summer and replaced the first race of the Chase with a new, second date at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This Sunday afternoon the stars of NASCAR will head to the Windy City and Chicagoland Speedway for the Overton's 400.

The 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Ill., 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 forgiving Charlotte Motor Speedway. No, a driver with an ill-handling car at this oval has to drive patiently until a pit stop and adjustments can be made.

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 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 13 years or 13 races at Chicagoland Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Chase Elliott2.55652117537125.6
Jimmie Johnson10.84214126373,134113.0
Kyle Busch11.43972375142,706107.3
Matt Kenseth10.94152394342,713101.8
Brad Keselowski9.22901451521,789100.4
Kevin Harvick13.13751492442,33798.9
Kyle Larson8.3141542289297.1
Martin Truex Jr.13.83812271762,22394.5
Joey Logano12.922349341,45491.0
Denny Hamlin15.135860132,18389.7
Kurt Busch13.74001191042,25088.6
Ryan Blaney7.5748840687.5
Daniel Suarez12.0330026687.2
Clint Bowyer14.43683281,95284.0
Ryan Newman15.033538281,79582.7
Kasey Kahne16.32647821,63981.0
Austin Dillon22.312912050978.2
Jamie McMurray20.8243501071,43475.8
Aric Almirola22.81433672071.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.610028038969.4

Chevrolet drivers had been pretty dominant on this oval since the Monster Energy Cup Series started racing here in 2001. Drivers from this manufacturer captured six of the first seven victories at this 1.5-mile oval, and seven of the first 11 as well. However, other teams have had something to say about that in the last few seasons. Toyota and Ford drivers have wrestled this oval away over the last five seasons. So Chevrolet teams have effectively lost their iron grip on this intermediate oval over the last few years. Tony Stewart's win here in 2011 stands as the most recent Chevrolet win at Chicagoland Speedway. Last year it was Martin Truex Jr. who came away with the hardware after 400 miles of action at this intermediate oval. That marked the second-straight victory for Truex at the Illinois oval, and third-straight Toyota victory at the track. Considering the recent strength of Kevin Harvick (Ford) and Kyle Busch (Toyota) on these style ovals, it looks to be a head-to-head showdown between these two drivers and manufacturers this Sunday afternoon. We'll see if Truex can rise and defend his turf in the Overton's 400.

As for drivers outside this main block of three, we have to give some consideration to Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson. He looks like the best chance for the bowtie brand to get back into victory lane at Chicagoland Speedway, and snap that long dry spell for the Chevrolet camp. Larson has been coming on strong in recent intermediate oval races, and he showed at both Kansas and Charlotte that he's worth keeping in the contender conversation. We'll take a look at this season's intermediate oval aces and some past history at Chicagoland Speedway, and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your league in the Overton's 400.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Furniture Row Racing star has won the last two Chicago races, and comes into the Overton's 400 as a favorite to defend his turf. Truex has two victories and two runner-up finishes in the five races leading up to Chicagoland Speedway. We're visiting one of his favorite style of ovals, the 1.5-mile tri-oval configuration. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota has yet to cash-in on one of these intermediate ovals this season, but Truex does boast a pair of runner-up finishes recently at Kansas and Charlotte. Coming off the big win at Sonoma this past week, you have to like Truex's chances to make it three in-a-row at Chicago.

Kevin Harvick –
Harvick has had a great season in 2018, and there's good reason to remain optimistic as we head into midsummer. With one pole, three victories and four Top-5 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit this season, the driver of the No. 4 Ford has been our most successful driver on the 1.5-mile tracks. Harvick has two wins and nine Top 5s in his 17 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 Harvick led 59 laps and finished third in this event one year ago, he'll be coming into Chicago with some unfinished business on his mind. If there's anything the field dreads, it's seeing a determined Harvick.

Kyle Busch –
Carrying a four-race Top-5 streak into the weekend, how can we not like Busch this Sunday at Chicago? He's a one-time winner at this facility and he's won three of the last four pole positions at this oval. Speed has not been a problem for this Joe Gibbs Racing star at Chicagoland Speedway, but nabbing those wins has been an issue. However, he's off to a great start this season on the 1.5-mile oval circuit. Busch has two victories (Fort Worth and Charlotte) and five Top-10 finishes in the five events to-date. He's really been about the biggest competition for Harvick on these style tracks in 2018. Victories have been eluding Busch at Chicagoland Speedway in recent years, but he may hit the jackpot in Sunday's Overton's 400.

Kyle Larson –
Larson has struggled with consistency this season, but he certainly hasn't been lacking speed. Whether it was his pole position this past week at Sonoma or his 101 laps led at Kansas Speedway recently, the No. 42 Chevrolet has been pretty strong despite Larson's uneven luck. Intermediate ovals this season have had their upside for the Chip Ganassi Racing star. Larson has grabbed two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in those five starts. His best performance of them all came at the similarly configured oval in Kansas. He led 101 laps in that event before finishing fourth. Larson is not really on level with our Top-3 contenders, but he's that bolt from the blue that could upset our more heavily favored drivers.

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

Joey Logano –
Despite last week's 19th-place finish at Sonoma, we have to shake that off and look ahead to what this Penske Racing star can accomplish in a rebound performance at Chicago's intermediate oval. Logano has been pretty solid on these style tracks in 2018 with one Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in five starts. With 44 laps led on the 1.5-mile oval circuit, we're used to occasionally seeing the No. 22 Ford race up front at these tracks. Logano finished seventh in this race one year ago. He rides a four-race Chicago Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. We expect Logano to be racing with the leaders this Sunday afternoon in the Overton's 400.

Denny Hamlin –
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota comes to Chicago energized and ready to impress after his Top-10 finish at Sonoma Raceway this past Sunday. An intermediate oval will provide the perfect follow up to what was a hard day in California last week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star won this event three years ago, and he rides a four-race Chicago Top-10 streak into Sunday's 400-mile Windy City battle. That has to give the veteran a shot of confidence. He's not led many laps on the intermediate ovals this season, but the finishes have been good. Hamlin's last two starts on intermediate ovals have netted fifth- and third-place finishes at Kansas and Charlotte. He and crew chief Mike Wheeler should have a good setup and plan for the Chicago oval.

Kurt Busch –
The No. 41 SHR team comes to Chicagoland Speedway on a pretty good roll. The veteran driver has nabbed six Top-10 finishes in the last seven races entering this weekend. Bush is fresh off a strong sixth-place showing at the Sonoma road course and looking for more coming to Illinois this week. The Stewart Haas Racing driver has some decent Chicago stats to fall back on. Busch's nine Top 10s in 17-career starts works out to a strong 53-percent rate at the facility. Considering that he's cracking the Top 10 on these style ovals in 2018 (four-for-five) at a lofty 80-percent rate, we'd say Busch's odds are better than his career average this weekend in the Overton's 400.

Brad Keselowski –
The Penske Racing star will be glad to get back onto an intermediate oval this weekend after his 13th-place finish at Sonoma. Keselowski needs a boost, and It all starts with a good performance at Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday afternoon. He won here in his championship season of 2012 and he also claimed a victory in this event four years ago. The veteran driver will hope to revive those performances in this very important race. He rides a strong seven-race Chicago Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is looking to hit the reset button as we come to Chicago, and the schedule offers the perfect oval for this driver and team. Keselowski has three Top 10s in the five intermediate oval events of this season, so the forecast going into Chicago looks pretty good if you're this Penske Racing star.

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

Erik Jones –
The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a stellar afternoon at Sonoma Raceway this past Sunday. Jones nabbed his sixth Top 10 of the season with his seventh-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. He'll look to build on that success with a strong outing at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend. Jones will be making just his second-career start at the Joliet oval. He had a forgettable performance here last season, and will look to improve in the Overton's 400. Jones has been pretty steady on the intermediate oval circuit this season. He has three Top 10s in five starts, and his highlight has to be the 64 laps led and fourth-place finish at Texas in April. Jones has the momentum and the current level of performance to crack the Top 10 Sunday afternoon.

Chase Elliott –
The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet is making his third-career start at Chicago this weekend and it's apparent that he loves this oval. Elliott has registered third- and second-place finishes in his two prior starts at Chicagoland Speedway, so he has this place pretty locked-in. The young driver has led a combined 117 laps in those two starts, so he's not exactly been sandbagging while here either. Elliott has been at the point of the field for much of the last two races at this facility. Intermediate ovals haven't exactly been kind to this driver and team this season, so we have to temper our expectations just a bit. However, finishes of 11th-, 12th- and 11th-place at Fort Worth, Kansas and Charlotte recently tend to indicate reason for some optimism.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson will be one of a handful of Chevy drivers to make a good fantasy racing start this weekend at Chicago's oval. He will be looking to up the ante after his steady 11th-place effort at Sonoma Raceway this past week. Johnson has led close to 700-career laps at Chicagoland Speedway and he's come away with seven Top 5s and 11 Top 10s in those 16 starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star has had a tough season on the intermediate ovals, but he seemed to turn the corner at Charlotte a few weeks ago. Johnson peddled the No. 48 Chevrolet to a fifth-place finish at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600. That is a good indicator of potential success coming into Chicago.

Clint Bowyer –
Bowyer flirted with victory lane this past week at Sonoma Raceway, but just didn't have the right pit strategy or enough speed to overcome Martin Truex Jr. The SHR veteran will look forward to another intermediate oval this week. The driver of the No. 14 Ford owns seven-career Top-10 finishes at Chicagoland Speedway, or a strong 58-percent rate. While he's been a bit off his game at this oval the last four years, he showed some flashes with his 13th-place finish a year ago. Bowyer has two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes on 1.5-mile ovals this season. That works out to a very respectable 11.4 average finish. You could do far worse than Bowyer in your fantasy lineups this weekend.

Aric Almirola –
People who drafted Almirola on their season-long fantasy race teams are likely looking at the prospect of winning their leagues and it's just the 17th race of the season. He's made that much of a difference. With seven Top 10s and sitting 10th in the driver standings, most players likely snatched him up late in auctions or drafts. Almirola has not disappointed. In fact, he's redefined expectations at many tracks where he's failed to impress over the years. Sonoma this past week is a great example. Chicago is much the same with one Top 10 in six-career starts, 22.8 average finish. However, his season long numbers on 1.5-mile ovals show two Top10s, four Top-15s and a 15.4 average finish.

Ryan Blaney –
Blaney has fallen on a bit of hard times of late. His 34th-place finish at Sonoma this past week snapped a two-race Top-10 streak for the No. 12 team, and it's the third 30th-place or worse finish for Blaney in the last five events. However, for all that inconsistency, speed has not been an issue. Blaney put his Ford on the pole at Pocono a few weeks ago, and he's led a combined 80-laps during his recent five-race roller coaster ride. The young Penske Racing driver is probably the biggest boom-or-bust pick this week, but comes with some tremendous upside. Blaney has finishes of fourth- and 11th-place in his two prior Chicago starts, so you gotta like those numbers. It helps to cover for his 40-percent Top-10 rate on cookie cutter tracks this season.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Newman –
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been really struggling in 2018. Through the season's first 16 races, Newman has just three Top-10 finishes and is tracking towards one of his worst seasons statistically in his 17-season career. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has found it particularly difficult on the circuit's many cookie cutter ovals. Newman has no Top-10 finishes, and two finishes outside the Top 30 in those five events. He checks in at a lowly 25.0 average finish on these style ovals this season. Chicago has held a lot of success over the years for Newman with one victory and nine Top-10 finishes. However, more recent outings have yielded 19th- and 23rd-place finishes each of the last two years.

Austin Dillon –
It's been a bit of a mixed bag this season for the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet on intermediate ovals. Dillon registered a pair of Top 15s early at Atlanta and Las Vegas, but since then he's stumbled with 26th-, 17th- and 34th-place finishes at Fort Worth, Kansas and Charlotte. The average sits around 20.8, and that's unacceptable for this driver and team. Dillon will have an opportunity to hit the reset button on Sunday. Three of his four-career Chicago starts have netted Top-20 finishes. However, we'd like to see this driver and team string together some decent efforts before we go hanging fantasy racing expectations on them.

A.J. Allmendinger –
The No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team hit rock bottom this past week with their engine failure and DNF at Sonoma. Allmendinger just doesn't look like himself, and missing a critical shift on a road course is very uncharacteristic for him. The news really doesn't get any better this week with the top division of NASCAR stopping in Chicago. Intermediate ovals have been a real puzzle for the veteran driver this season. Allmendinger has only one Top-20 finish in five starts this season, and a lowly 24.4 average finish. His Chicagoland Speedway history is really no better. With no Top 10s in nine-career starts, Allmendinger checks in at a 21.0 average finish. He finished 26th in this event one year ago, so that's the mark to watch this Sunday afternoon.

William Byron –
It's been a real struggle for the rookie this season. Byron has really labored in the No. 24 Chevrolet and checks in with only one Top-10 finish through the first 16 events of 2018. He comes to Chicago 20th in the driver point standings. Byron did nab that one Top-10 finish on an intermediate oval (Texas), but all else has been a titanic struggle on the cookie cutter tracks. Three finishes outside the Top 25 and two DNF's have his average finish at 25.4 through five races this season. This weekend will be Byron's Cup Series debut at Chicagoland Speedway, and like many of his other track debuts probably a forgettable one.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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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