Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Chicago

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst ISeptember 11, 2013

Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Chicago

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    After 26 weeks of regular-season action, the Sprint Cup Series kicks off its version of the playoffs this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

    For 12 drivers, this race marks the first of a 10-week-long fight for the championship. For the rest of the field, it is an opportunity to play the role of spoiler and try to steal some of the headlines by scoring a win at one of NASCAR's newest stops.

    The first race of the Chase is always an important one. For the 12 championship contenders, it is important to get the playoffs started on the right foot. Any problems and a driver could leave Chicago with a huge points deficit to overcome.

    Racing oneself out of championship contention after one week is something that no driver wants to deal with.

    So who are the drivers to keep the closest eye on, and which stories are making the most news? Join us as we break it all down and get you set for the opening weekend of the playoffs, NASCAR style.

Chicago Race Information

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    The first race of the Chase begins in Joliet, Ill., on Sunday afternoon. Here are all of the important details.

    Race: GEICO 400

    Track: Chicagoland Speedway (one-and-a-half mile, D-shaped tri-oval)

    Distance: 267 laps to make up 400 miles

    Green Flag: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Defending Race Winner: Brad Keselowski

    First Race: July 15, 2001 (won by Kevin Harvick)

Breaking Down Chicagoland Speedway

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    Chicagoland Speedway is one of the newer tracks on the Sprint Cup series schedule. The venue hosted its first race in July of 2001 and has hosted one event annually since then.

    Originally run in the regular season, Chicagoland Speedway was given a Chase race for the first time in 2012. This year marks the second consecutive season that the track will be the host venue for the opening race of the Chase.

    Nine different drivers have won a race at the mile-and-a-half track. Tony Stewart is the leader with three wins, followed by Kevin Harvick as the only other driver to post multiple wins at the speedway, as he won the first two races held in Chicago.

    Chicagoland is a track that proves it isn't about where you start. In only four of the 12 races held at the speedway did the winning driver start the event inside the top 10. Three times, the winning driver began the race from a starting spot outside the top 20.

Top Storylines at Chicago

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    Newman In, Truex Out

    Undoubtedly, the overwhelming story going into Chicago centers around the Michael Waltrip Racing penalties and Ryan Newman being given a spot in the Chase at Martin Truex Jr.'s expense. No question that in the early stages of the race, those two drivers, along with Truex’s teammate Clint Bowyer, who was at the center of the controversy, will be the three most talked-about and watched drivers.


    When will Jimmie Johnson’s Struggles End?

    Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of the worst four-race streak of his career. The past month has seen Johnson post finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th. As a result, his 75-point lead in the standings turned into a one-point deficit following Saturday night's race (before the points were reset).

    Chicago is a good track for Johnson to possibly rebound. Though he has never won there, he has posted nine top-10 finishes in 11 career starts and is the all-time leader in laps led with 537.


    Non-Chasers Look to Steal the Headlines

    Only 12 drivers are eligible to race for the championship, but 31 others will be looking to win the race. Notable drivers like four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and defending champion Brad Keselowski failed to qualify for the Chase, but both are former winners at the mile-and-a-half track.

    Mark Martin, driving for the injured Tony Stewart, as well as Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, both coming off top-five finishes in Richmond. are all non-Chase drivers to keep a close eye on as well.

Meeting the Drivers Atop the Point Standings

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    With the start of the Chase comes a shuffle of the point standings. Seeding for the playoffs is based on wins, with three points awarded for every victory. The top 10 drivers in the standings all receive the bonus points awarded for wins, while the two wild-card drivers start in 11th and 12th place with the base 2,000 points.

    1. Matt Kenseth: Thanks to a series-best five wins, Matt Kenseth begins the Chase as the points leader by three points. Kenseth ended the regular season in sixth place in the standings, 35 points out of the lead.

    2. Jimmie Johnson: Jimmie Johnson starts the Chase three points out of the lead following four regular-season wins. The last four weeks have been a struggle for Johnson, as he went from leading standings by 75 points to finishing the regular season one point out of the lead. 

    3. Kyle BuschKyle Busch matched Johnson’s four wins and will start the playoffs tied with him, three points behind Kenseth. Busch is seeking his first series championship in his sixth Chase appearance.

    4. Kevin Harvick: Kevin Harvick won two events during the regular season and earned the fourth spot to start the playoffs. Harvick is the only multi-time Chicago winner in the Chase, as he won the first two events held at the speedway in 2001 and 2002.

    5. Carl Edwards: Carl Edwards is the most recent winner in Sprint Cup competition. His win at Richmond was his second of the year and earned him the fifth spot in the standings. Edwards technically won the regular-season points title, as he edged Johnson by a point following Richmond.


Favorites at Chicago

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    Jimmie Johnson

    Jimmie Johnson's struggles have to end sooner or later, and what better place to do it than at Chicago. Though he has failed to win in the Windy City, Johnson has scored nine top-10s in 11 starts. His average finish of 9.3 is the best among all Chase drivers, and he is the track's all-time leader in laps led. He finished runner-up in this event one year ago.


    Kevin Harvick

    Kevin Harvick is a two-time Chicago winner and has posted seven top-10s in his 12 career starts there. His six top-five finishes tie for the second-most in track history, behind only the injured Tony Stewart.


    Ryan Newman

    Chicagoland Speedway is one of Ryan Newman's best tracks. In 11 starts, he has scored one win and amassed seven top-10 finishes. Newman also posted a top-five finish in this race last season. If not for the controversy surrounding the end of Saturday night's race, he would be going into Chicago as the Sprint Cup Series' most recent winner.


    Clint Bowyer

    In seven career starts, Bowyer has only finished outside the top 10 at Chicago one time. Assuming he can put last weekend's controversy behind him and focus on the race, he will stay in contention all throughout the day.


    Jeff Gordon

    Not that Jeff Gordon ever needs added motivation, but the events in Richmond and missing the Chase by a single point should offer more than a little. Gordon is a former winner at Chicago and has posted seven top-10s at the mile-and-a-half facility.

Chicagoland Predictions

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    The first race of the playoffs is always an important one. No driver wants to leave Chicago in too big of a hole, as any misfortune can spell early disaster for one's championship hopes.

    Some drivers, like Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman, come into this race riding a lot of momentum. Others, most notably Jimmie Johnson, are desperately looking for a spark to get things headed back in the right direction.

    Mile-and-a-half tracks dominate the Chase landscape, so this race will be a good guide as to which drivers are true championship contenders and which ones are not. Expect the drivers that do well in Chicago to continue that trend all the way through Homestead.

    So, who scores the win in Chase race No. 1? Conventional wisdom says that, once the playoffs start, never bet against Johnson. While that makes a lot of sense given that he has twice as many Chase wins as anyone else, he will not improve upon those numbers in Chicago.

    Look for Johnson to score a top-five finish, but it will be a driver who enters this race with a little momentum on his side who will ultimately end up in Victory Lane.

    Chicago Winner: Ryan Newman