This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
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 Darlington Raceway. 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
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 Darlington Raceway. 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 11 years or 11 races at Chicagoland Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||13.5||394||79||42||2,050||89.5|
|Martin Truex Jr.||16.3||319||93||67||1,749||87.8|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||14.3||100||10||0||389||80.2|
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 two of the last three races at Chicagoland Speedway, and in 2014 Ford claimed their first-ever Chicago victory by the talents of Brad Keselowski. So Chevrolet teams have been steadily losing their iron grip on this intermediate oval over the last few seasons. Tony Stewart's win here in 2011 stands as the most recent Chevrolet win at Chicagoland Speedway. Last year it was Denny Hamlin who came away with the hardware after 400 miles of action at this intermediate oval. It was a very balanced race that saw several contenders run up front and lead laps. The Joe Gibbs Racing star battled with Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth to secure the win.
When we take a close look at the historical stats we see that Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kenseth and Hamlin love racing at Chicagoland Speedway. This group has captured six wins, 17 Top 5s and led 965 laps at the Illinois oval. It goes without saying that these handful of stars are worthy fantasy racing candidates for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400. All four drivers are in the Championship Chase, so motivation won't be an issue for these veterans. If Chevrolet hopes to retake control in the Windy City, the task will primarily rest on Harvick and Kyle Larson's shoulders. Harvick last won here way back in 2002, but he's been pecking around the Top 5 in recent outings and is always a threat to win. Larson is on fire coming into Chase race number one. He has one victory and three Top-3 finishes in his last three events. With third- and seventh-place finishes at Chicagoland Speedway in his resume, Larson would appear ready to visit victory lane here. 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
Denny Hamlin - The driver of the No. 11 Toyota comes to Chicago energized and ready to make a run at his first championship. Hamlin picked a good time to rediscover his top form, and it may pay off in November with him hoisting the Sprint Cup. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is our last Chicago winner, and he finished a strong sixth-place here in 2014. 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. With his win at Richmond this past weekend, Hamlin has won two of the last five events and rides a torrid eight-race Top-10 streak into Chicago. He and crew chief Mike Wheeler should have a good setup and plan for the Chicago oval.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick has had a great season in 2016, and there's been good reason to be even more optimistic heading into the Chase. With runner-up finishes earlier this season at Kansas and Charlotte, the No. 4 team has been a real threat on these intermediate ovals. Harvick has two wins and eight Top 5s in his 15 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 race at Chicagoland Speedway.
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 four years ago and also a victory in this event two years ago. The veteran driver will hope to repeat those performances Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is peaking at the right time as we enter the Chase and coming off five Top 10s in the last six events entering Chicago. Keselowski has won on the cookie cutter ovals of Las Vegas and Kentucky this season. The forecast going into Chicago looks pretty good if you're this Penske Racing star.
Kyle Larson - Larson has suddenly come of age in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Over the last three races he's gone from second-tier pretender to top-tier contender. His first-career win at Michigan has been followed by second- and third-place efforts at Darlington and Richmond. The surging Chip Ganassi Racing driver has to be seen as a real threat to the top drivers this weekend. Larson's third- and seventh-place finishes in his two-career starts at Chicagoland Speedway show that he loves racing this intermediate oval. The young driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is not to be underestimated in this first race of the Chase for the Cup.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Joey Logano - After last week's 10th-place performance at Richmond, Logano cemented his spot in the Chase for the fourth time in his career. Now he has a lot to race for as the series comes to Chicago's intermediate oval. Logano has been pretty solid on these style tracks in 2016 with two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in six starts. With 78 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 outside pole for this event and finished sixth in this race one year ago. He's been turning over his Chicago resume to the strong side the last three seasons. We expect Logano to be racing with the leaders this Sunday afternoon in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.
Martin Truex Jr. - The Furniture Row Racing driver comes to Chicago as a Chase participant, and riding some pretty good momentum leading up to NASCAR's playoff. Truex has one victory and three Top-10 finishes in the five races leading up to Chicago. We're visiting one of Truex's favorite style of ovals, the 1.5-mile tri-oval configuration. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota has two Top-10 finishes in 10-career starts at Chicagoland Speedway with a subpar average finish of 16.3. However, these style ovals have been a key part of Truex's success the past two seasons. Truex's dominant victory at the similar oval in Charlotte is evidence enough of that fact.
Kurt Busch - The No. 41 SHR team made the Chase once again in their third season in existence. Coming off a campaign of one win and 17 Top 10s, it's no surprise. It's been a steady season for Busch filled with many successes, 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 nine Top 10s in 15-career starts works out to a strong 60-percent rate at the facility. We say his odds are better than that this weekend at the Windy City oval.
Kyle Busch - Coming off a steady ninth-place finish at Richmond, how can we not like Busch this weekend at Chicago? With 11th- and ninth-place finishes in the last two races entering this weekend, the veteran driver comes to RIR turning his ship around. Busch 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. 18 Toyota team. His one-career victory and six Top-10 finishes at Chicagoland Speedway are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. Busch is seeking to defend last season's championship, so you know he'll be racing with real purpose this weekend.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Chicago who can provide a solid finish
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson will be one of a handful of Chevy drivers to make a good start this weekend at Chicago's oval. He will be looking to hit the reset button after some shaky performances leading up to the Chase. The six-time Sprint Cup champion hasn't won in 14-career starts at Chicago, but he's managed to maintain some pretty stellar stats at the intermediate oval over the years. Johnson has led close to 600 career laps at Chicagoland Speedway and he's come away with seven Top 5s in those 14 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 improved form for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth has been a top performer for manufacturer Toyota all season long. With two victories, and 11 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 three Top-10 finishes in six events. He has led close to 450-career laps at this 1.5-mile oval and he has seven Top 10s in those starts. Coming off a sixth-place finish at Darlington a couple weeks ago, he's improving on the larger ovals coming to Chicago. Now that Kenseth is racing with the championship in the balance, we should see a more urgent No. 20 team in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.
Kasey Kahne - It's taken most of the season, but appears that a turnaround is finally taking hold in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 team. Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden are finally developing some chemistry and the results are starting to show. It's come too late to get the veteran driver into the Chase, but they can collect some valuable data and post some good performances over the final 10 races to get ready for 2017. Kahne only has three Top 10s in his Chicago resume, but they've all come since the 2009 season. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is riding a two-race Top-10 streak into Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday afternoon.
Chase Elliott - The rookie driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has cooled off a bit in the second-half of the season after his torrid start to the campaign. However, Elliott has been pretty strong on the intermediate and larger ovals. His recent second- and 10th-place finishes at Michigan and Darlington are evidence of that fact. This will be Elliott's first-career Sprint Cup start at the Chicago oval. But that should not be a concern. He's rattled off great finishes in track debuts all season long. Elliott is far from unexperienced at this intermediate oval. In four-career Xfinity Series starts he has one victory and a pair of Top-10 finishes.
Jamie McMurray - With his Top-10 finish at Richmond last Saturday night, McMurray locked down a berth in the Chase for the Cup. For the first-time ever, Chip Ganassi Racing will have two drivers competing in NASCAR's playoff for the championship. McMurray has been a big part of the renaissance at CGR this season. His four Top 10s in the last five events heading into the Chase underscore this fact. The veteran driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has only three Top 10s in 13 starts at Chicagoland Speedway. However, one of those came in this event two seasons ago. He led 32 laps and finished a strong ninth-place in the MyAFibStory.com 400. McMurray will be pumped up for this first race of the Chase, and he should continue his Top-10 ways in this 400-mile battle.
Austin Dillon - While the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has cooled from his early-season hot streak, Dillon has provided consistent value and performance on the larger ovals all season long. His last five starts on ovals larger than 1-mile in size have netted finishes of 13th-, ninth-, 13th-, 16th- and 12th-place. With the Chase for the Cup kicking off, and this being Dillon's first foray into NASCAR's playoff, we expect the No. 3 team to be in top form this weekend. Dillon's two prior starts at the Windy City track have been nothing to write home about, but the valuable experience will serve him well in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Tony Stewart - Smoke's summer hot streak has finally fizzled out as September began and the Chase is now starting. Finishes of 21st- and 35th-place at Michigan and Darlington have signaled this swoon. Chicago ranks as one of the best ovals in his Sprint Cup Series resume with three wins and 10 Top 10s. However, his intermediate oval resume this season has been less-than-inspiring. Smoke has only one Top-10 finish in his three cookie cutter races to-date. The veteran driver's crash and 33rd-place finish this past weekend at Richmond is a troubling sign entering the final 10 races of 2016. It certainly erases any hopes for fantasy racing productivity.
Greg Biffle - Biffle and the No. 16 team are suffering a power outage this season. With only three Top 10s for the campaign, he failed to make the Chase for the Cup. He normally is a top performer on intermediate tracks, but 2016 has been a different season all together. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has been below average this season on these style tracks with only one Top 10 in the six events to-date. That works out to a 19.3 average finish for this high profile driver. Biffle's one Top 10 in 13-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.
Trevor Bayne - Despite Bayne's Top-15 finish and steady performance at Richmond this past week, we're lowering our expectations for the No. 6 team. The Roush Fenway Racing driver's performance on the larger ovals of late has been terribly lacking. Bayne has finishes of 23rd-, 30th-, 19th-, 24th- and 40th-place in those last five events on ovals larger than one-mile in size. His Chicago stats aren't any better. Bayne has three-career starts at the Windy City oval and they're efforts of 23rd-, 20th- and 28th-place. It seems the chances are slim for a breakout for Bayne and the No. 6 Ford team this Sunday afternoon at Chicago.
Clint Bowyer - The veteran driver enters the final 10 races of this season and will begin thinking of next year and taking over Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet at Stewart Haas Racing. This campaign has been almost a complete throwaway from a performance standpoint. Bowyer has posted career lows in Top-10 finishes (three) and driver standings (28th-place) since becoming a Sprint Cup regular back in 2006. The veteran driver has seven Top 10s in 10-career starts at Chicago, which is pretty stellar. However, his last two outings have netted finishes of 39th- and 19th-place at Chicagoland Speedway. It's best to stay clear of Bowyer until he takes over the No. 14 next season.