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Geico 400 Preview: Chase Race No. 1 on Tap

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The first race in the 2013 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 Sunday afternoon. The stars of NASCAR will head to the Windy City and Chicagoland Speedway for the Geico 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 expansive Atlanta Motor Speedway. No, a driver with an ill-handling car 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 seven years or seven races at Chicagoland Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson11.62263104791,856116.2
Tony Stewart7.92661541591,843109.8
Brian Vickers8.612841121,004101.5
Matt Kenseth13.51981783441,473101.5
Kyle Busch13.4246951741,53399.4
Kevin Harvick12.120747941,46295.8
Jeff Gordon14.827198731,56294.6
Clint Bowyer10.12292181,27791.8
Carl Edwards16.6263110561,39390.9
Brad Keselowski14.092738053190.2
Mark Martin12.3169751961,17789.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 11.325164401,38389.5
Greg Biffle17.818371771,13387.6
Martin Truex Jr.16.922275281,22686.4
Kurt Busch16.419360671.23984.3
Denny Hamlin18.72052311,16883.2
Ryan Newman15.519220271,16682.8
Kasey Kahne16.91527421,06981.0
David Reutimann20.4106455261080.6
Aric Almirola17.021239280.5

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 nine victories at this 1.5-mile oval. However, other teams have had something to say about that in the last few visits. Last year, in Dodge's swan song, it was Brad Keselowski marching into victory lane at the intermediate oval. While Dodge cannot defend that race win, their successor at Penske Racing, Ford, can step up. Carl Edwards coming off the big Richmond win and Joey Logano have been two the hottest Ford drivers the last several weeks. When we take a close look at the historical stats we see that Chevrolet drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick love racing at Chicagoland Speedway. This group has captured four wins, 21 Top 5s and led 1,134 laps at the Illinois oval. It goes without saying that Johnson, Gordon, Harvick and Newman are worthy fantasy racing candidates for the Geico 400. All but Gordon are in the Championship Chase, so motivation won't be an issue. If Toyota hopes to steal Chevy and Ford's thunder in the Windy City, the task will primarily rest on Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch's shoulders. This oval is among Kenseth's best tracks on the circuit. The Joe Gibbs Racing duo has led more laps (654) and captured more wins (5) 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

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been the top driver for manufacturer Toyota all season long. With five victories entering Chicago weekend, he's the top seed to begin the Chase for the Cup. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a top performer on intermediate ovals all season long with three of his five victories coming on tracks of this style. He has led close to 350 career laps at this 1.5-mile oval and he has four Top 10s in those starts. With victories this season at Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky Kenseth has to be seen as the favorite this weekend. Now that Kenseth is racing with the championship in the balance, we should see a run at the checkers in the Geico 400.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has had a good season in 2013, and there's been good reason to be even more optimistic heading into the Chase. Coming off the Top 10 at Atlanta and the victory at Charlotte earlier in the summer, the No. 29 team has been a real threat on these intermediate ovals. Harvick has two wins and seven Top 10s in his 12 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.

Kyle Busch -
The Chase has been a tough proposition for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota over the years. However, there's always hope for Busch to make a run at his first championship. He has four victories this season coming to the Joliet oval with two of them coming on 1.5-mile tracks. The Joe Gibbs Racing star owns one career win and three Top-5 finishes in his eight starts at Chicagoland Speedway. Those numbers bode well given how strong Busch has performed on the intermediate ovals this season. If the breaks fall his way, we could see the M&M's driver taking a bow after 400-miles of action at Chicago.

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 500 career laps at Chicagoland Speedway and he's come away with six Top 5s in those 11 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.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The MWR driver comes to Chicago not as a Chase participant, but trying to keep it together in the wake of the spin-out scandal this past weekend at Richmond. It's a good thing we're visiting one of Truex's favorite ovals, and that he's been shredding the 1.5-mile tracks this season. The driver of the No. 56 Toyota has three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in the six intermediate oval races of 2013. These style ovals have been a key part of Truex's success this season. His recent Chicago resume holds respectable stats with two Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to Northern Illinois. Don't hesitate to deploy Truex in your weekly lineup leagues this Sunday, despite the controversy swirling around MWR right now.

Jeff Gordon -
Coming off a great performance at Richmond, how can we not like Gordon this weekend at Chicago? Despite missing the Chase field the Hendrick Motorsports star comes to Joliet riding a three-race Top-10 streak. 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 strong 50 percent Top 5 rate and one career victory at Chicagoland Speedway are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. Gordon is fresh off Top 10s at Kentucky and Atlanta in recent weeks, so he should keep the momentum rolling at Chicagoland Speedway.

Joey Logano -
After last week's disappointing 22nd-place performance at Richmond, Logano still made the Chase for the first 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 2013 with four Top-5 finishes in six starts. That includes recent fourth- and second-place finishes at Kentucky and Atlanta. The driver of the No. 22 Ford should have no trouble rebounding from his lackluster Richmond performance. We expect Logano to be racing with the leaders this Sunday afternoon in the Geico 400.

Ryan Newman -
With Monday's shocking news that Newman had made the Chase field in the wake of the historic Michael Waltrip Racing penalty, he comes to the Windy City with a new focus. Newman has a great Chicago resume with one victory and seven Top 10s in 11 career starts at the heartland oval. That bodes well for the final driver admitted to the Chase field. The SHR veteran has three Top 10s on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season, including a brilliant Top 5 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 the intentional spin and subsequent NASCAR penalty at Richmond? It will be a distraction all weekend for the Michael Waltrip Racing star, but we believe he'll plow through the tough media questions and focus on the race. Bowyer has a championship to race for so 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 six Top 10s in seven career starts at Chicago, so getting back up to speed shouldn't be too difficult. We expect to see Bowyer leading laps and mixing it up at the front on Sunday afternoon.

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 eighth-place finish at Atlanta. His last two trips to Chicagoland Speedway have netted third- and eighth-place 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 Geico 400.

Carl Edwards -
The Richmond winner comes to Chicago energized and ready to make a run at his first championship. Edwards picked a good time to rediscover his winning ways, and it may pay off in November with him hoisting the Sprint Cup. Edwards owns two Top-5 finishes in his last three trips to the 1.5-mile oval outside Chicago. That has to give the Roush Fenway star a shot of confidence. He's led a lot of laps on intermediate ovals recently, but the finishes have not followed. This is likely the weekend where all that changes. Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig should have a good setup and plan for the Chicago oval.

Kurt Busch -
Welcome to the Chase Furniture Row Racing. Busch completed the historic feat of getting a single-car operation into NASCAR's playoff format field for the first time in its brief history. It's been a whirlwind season for the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet. Busch looks to kick off his Chase campaign with another successful run at Chicagoland Speedway. He has third-, sixth- and fourth-place finishes in his last three intermediate oval events. The veteran also has some decent Chicago stats to fall back on. Busch's six Top 10s in 12 career starts works out to a respectable 50 percent rate at the facility. We say his odds are better than that this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The light switch may finally be flipping on for the promising rookie. Stenhouse recently collected his first career pole position at the similar oval in Atlanta, and he's fresh off his first Top-10 finish of the season with his great performance at Richmond. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has loads of talent, as his two Nationwide Series championships attests, 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 Scott Graves. A Top-15 finish should be in store for the Geico 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet should continue to impress as his late summer hot streak continues. Montoya has four Top 10s in his last seven races and he continues to perform the best he has all season in the last few weeks. The EGR driver has only hit the Top 10 once in six career starts at Chicagoland Speedway, but he's always been steady here with a respectable average finish of 16.0. If Montoya's recent seventh-place finish at the intermediate oval in Atlanta is any indicator, he should be pretty fast this Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion won't get the opportunity to defend his title during the Chase for the Cup. Probably the most shocking story of the past week outside of the Michael Waltrip Racing shenanigans was our Penske Racing champ failing to make the cut for the Chase. Keselowski will now shift focus towards improving and getting ready for the 2014 season, but the team has a lot of work to do over the next 10 races. The performance level of this team is not in a good place. Keselowski's last three intermediate oval efforts have been disastrous 36th-, 33rd- and 35th-place finishes.

Denny Hamlin -
The Hamlin saga will continue at Chicago. The Top 10 blackout is now up to a staggering 12 straight races and showing no signs of ending anytime soon after a disappointing 21st-place finish at Richmond this past week. Hamlin has never been that strong at the Chicago oval either, so prospects for a turnaround this weekend look pretty bleak. He has only two Top-10 finishes in seven career starts at the 1.5-mile oval with a high 18.7 average finish. There are much better options in your weekly lineup leagues than the struggling No. 11 Toyota team.

Greg Biffle -
The Bif' may be about the only Roush Fenway Racing driver you don't want to go near this weekend at Chicago. He normally is a top performer on intermediate tracks, but 2013 has been a different story. The driver of the No. 16 Ford has really struggled this season on these style tracks with only one Top 10 in the six events to-date. That works out to a pitiful 20.0 average finish for this high profile driver. Biffle's one Top 10 in 10 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.

Jeff Burton -
Now that it's been announced that Burton will not be returning to the No. 31 Chevrolet next season, it seems that the veteran driver has a very uncertain future in the sport. His last couple performances seem to indicate a distracted driver with other things on his mind. Finishes of 34th- and 18th-place at Atlanta and Richmond fall well short of the expectations for this driver and team. Burton's 33 percent career Top 10 rate at Chicago and his 22.0 average finish this season on intermediate ovals indicate a driver who'll be severely challenged to break the Top 20 at the Joliet track.