The first race in the 2015 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 MyAFibRisk.com 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 10 years or 10 races at Chicagoland Speedway.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Martin Truex Jr.
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 seven races at Chicagoland Speedway, and most recently 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 Keselowski 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 Penske Racing star battled with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Larson to secure the win.
When we take a close look at the historical stats we see that Harvick, Keselowski and Stewart love racing at Chicagoland Speedway. This group has captured seven wins, 19 Top 5s and led 941 laps at the Illinois oval. It goes without saying that these handful of stars are worthy fantasy racing candidates for the MyAFibRisk.com 400. Only Harvick and Keselowski are in the Championship Chase, so motivation won’t be an issue for these two. Stewart is on the outside looking in, and racing probably the worst of his career. We may have to break with history at Chicago, at least as far as it relates to the No. 14 team. If Toyota hopes to retake control in the Windy City, the task will primarily rest on Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch’s shoulders. Kenseth won at this oval two seasons ago in a Toyota in his first start for Joe Gibbs at Chicagoland, and Busch won here way back in 2008. However, he’s had two flirtations with victory lane at the Joliet oval the last two seasons with a pole win and a runner-up finish. Both drivers are red hot entering the Chase for the Cup, so we expect this JGR duo to cast a strong bid for the win this Sunday afternoon. 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 four victories, 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 three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes. He has led close to 450 career laps at this 1.5-mile oval and he has six Top 10s in those starts. Coming off the wins at Michigan and Richmond recently, he’s hitting his stride coming to Chicago. Now that Kenseth is racing with the championship in the balance, we should see a run at the checkers in the MyAFibRisk.com 400.
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 a victory in this event one year ago. The veteran driver 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 nine-straight Top 10s entering Chicago. Keselowski has led close to 150 laps on these style ovals this season. The forecast going into Chicago looks pretty good if you’re this Penske Racing star.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick has had a great season in 2015, and there’s been good reason to be even more optimistic heading into the Chase. With a win at Las Vegas and runner-up finishes earlier in this season at Atlanta, Fort Worth and Kansas, the No. 4 team has been a real threat on these intermediate ovals. Harvick has two wins and eight Top 5s in his 14 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 – Coming off a great runner-up performance at Richmond, how can we not like Busch this weekend at Chicago? With a pair of runner-up finishes in the last five races entering this weekend, the veteran driver comes to RIR in top form. 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 four Top-5 finishes at Chicagoland Speedway are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. Busch is seeking his elusive first championship, so you know he’ll be racing with real purpose this weekend.
Solid Plays – Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Joey Logano – After last week’s third-place performance at Richmond, Logano cemented his spot in the Chase for the third 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 2015 with four Top-5 finishes in six starts. With 219 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 two years ago and finished fourth 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 MyAFibRisk.com 400.
Kurt Busch – The No. 41 SHR team made the Chase in their second season in existence. Coming off a campaign of two wins and 14 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 eight Top 10s in 14 career starts works out to a respectable 57-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 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 13 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 13 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 MyAFibRisk.com 400.
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 owns two Top-10 finishes in his last two trips to 1.5-mile ovals leading up to the Chase. 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. Riding a four-race Top-10 streak that dates back to Michigan, Hamlin has some momentum. He and crew chief Dave Rogers should have a good setup and plan for the Chicago oval.
Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Chicago who can provide a solid finish
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 has logged five Top-5 finishes in the six intermediate oval races thus far this season. Two of his last four trips to Chicagoland Speedway have netted Top-10 finishes plus an 11th-place effort 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 MyAFibRisk.com 400.
Carl Edwards – The new Joe Gibbs Racing driver took some time to find his groove with his new No. 19 team, but he finally found it as the summer came to a close. With a win at Charlotte and fourth-place finish at Kentucky over the summer, Edwards hit his stride on these cookie cutter ovals. To top that, the veteran driver claimed a big win recently at Darlington and he’s cracked the Top 10 in five of the last six races leading up to the Chase for the Cup. Chicagoland Speedway has been a track of mixed results for the JGR driver over the years, but now that he’s with Toyota that should begin to change. Sunday afternoon he should visit the Top 10 there for the first time since the 2011 season.
Jeff Gordon – Gordon’s seventh-place finish at Richmond this past week snapped a four-race Top-10 drought for the No. 24 team. Things have been a struggle recently for the NASCAR legend, but turning positive going into the 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 Chevrolet team. His one career victory and seven Top-5 finishes are a major endorsement of his fantasy racing worth this weekend. Gordon is seeking his first championship since the 2001 season in his final Chase for the Cup, so you know he’ll be racing with real purpose this weekend.
Clint Bowyer – The big question heading to Chicago is how will Bowyer perform knowing this is his last season with Michael Waltrip Racing? It will be a bit of a distraction all weekend for the driver of the No. 15 Toyota, but we believe he’ll plow through the questions and focus on the race. Bowyer doesn’t have a realistic chance to win the championship, but getting down to business won’t be too hard once the distraction is set aside and the engines fire up. The veteran driver has seven Top 10s in nine 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.
Ryan Newman – With his Top-20 finish at Richmond last Saturday night, the veteran RCR 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 13-career starts at the heartland oval. That bodes well for one of the final drivers admitted to the Chase field. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has four Top 10s on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season, including a brilliant sixth-place finish at Charlotte over the summer. It may be a Cinderella pick, but we like Newman’s chances at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend.
Aric Almirola – The light switch may finally be flipping on for the promising Richard Petty Motorsports driver. Almirola turned in his best performance of the season this past week at Richmond with a fourth-place effort in a failed attempt to make the Chase. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has loads of talent, and despite missing the Chase for the Cup should bring some of that Richmond momentum with him to Chicago. Almirola finished a respectable 11th- and 12th-place at the similar ovals of Kansas and Kentucky over the summer. A Top-15 finish should be in store for the MyAFibRisk.com 400.
Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week
Tony Stewart – Due to his lackluster season, and personal struggles, Stewart erases much of the great upside that he’s had at Chicagoland Speedway over the years. 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 a pair of Top-25 finishes in the six cookie cutter races to-date and the other four efforts have been finishes outside the Top 30. The veteran driver’s lowly 29th-place finish this past weekend at Richmond is a troubling sign entering the final 10 races of 2015. It certainly erases any hopes for fantasy racing productivity.
Greg Biffle – Biffle and the No. 16 team has had a mysterious 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 2015 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 14.3 average finish for this high profile driver. Biffle’s one Top 10 in 12-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 two-career starts at Chicagoland Speedway, and they yielded eighth- and 17th-place finishes the past two seasons. 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 two Top-20 finishes in six starts, the average is coming up way short at 25.3. He’s only finished on the lead lap on the 1.5-mile ovals twice 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 as a Chase participant, but trying to keep it together in the wake of some poor finishes leading up to NASCAR’s playoff. Truex has only finished in the Top 10 twice in the last six races leading up to Chicago and he finished a troubling 32nd this past week at Richmond. 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 two Top-10 finishes in nine-career starts at Chicagoland Speedway with a subpar average finish of 16.7. These style ovals have been a key part of Truex’s success this year, but his recent struggles cast a shadow of doubt on him this weekend.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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