The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series descends upon Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday afternoon to kick off the playoffs.
The postseason-opening affair, dubbed the Tales of the Turtles 400, sets the tone for the rest of the playoffs in a big way—not that this wild season needed to create any hype for itself.
Thanks to the new format this year, this is far from a usual-suspects affair in Chicago. Seven playoff drivers tout multiple wins, and three haven't raised a checkered flag at all. The fact Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other big names sit on the outside looking in speaks to the competitiveness of the season and those in the fray.
Let's take a look at the important details surrounding the race before things get underway.
Where: Chicagoland Speedway
When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports
Tales of the Turtles 400 Lineup
Full order available at NASCAR.com.
2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Martin Truex Jr.||2,053|
|2. Kyle Larson||2,033|
|3. Kyle Busch||2,029|
|4. Brad Keselowski||2,019|
|5. Jimmie Johnson||2,017|
|6. Kevin Harvick||2,015|
|7. Denny Hamlin||2,013|
|8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||2,010|
|9. Ryan Blaney||2,008|
|10. Chase Elliott||2,006|
|11. Ryan Newman||2,005|
|12. Kurt Busch||2,005|
|13. Kasey Kahne||2,005|
|14. Austin Dillon||2,005|
|15. Matt Kenseth||2,005|
|16. Jamie McMurray||2,003|
Drivers to Watch
It's playoff time—all eyes are on Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson had a quiet summer right up to the playoffs. He finished eighth in Richmond last time out, though it shouldn't fool onlookers—he only has two other top-10 finishes dating back to mid-June and no poles to speak of on the season. Heck, he hasn't led laps since the beginning of July.
Does it matter?
Most, including the sport's top drivers, would say it doesn't.
"Obviously, the performance hasn't been what they want or what they need, but you almost have to laugh because you look at it and you would have said the same thing last year," Kevin Harvick said, according to ESPN.com's Bob Pockrass.
Feel free to call this deja vu. Johnson had a so-so performance last year, especially in June and July. Fans know what happened once the playoffs started.
Harvick and the others have to hope Johnson doesn't discover the same form again.
Martin Truex Jr.
It sounds obvious to say the series leader is a driver to watch.
But this goes a bit deeper than face value. Martin Truex Jr. isn't just the series leader courtesy of four checkered flags, tied with Kyle Larson. He also happens to be the defending champ at this particular event after leading 32 laps before taking the win.
Again, there are layers to this. Truex needs a rebound performance after crashing out down the stretch in the most recent race, as NBC captured:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
.@KyleLarsonRacin wins at @RichmondRaceway as Martin Truex Jr. wrecks behind him! #NASCARonNBCSN #NASCARPlayoffs https://t.co/4W3409O1oJ2017-9-10 02:57:23
Truex's finish of 20th means he's landed there or worse in two out of his past three races. His being in contention late before the wreck skews things, but he'll need to grasp on to the momentum and put the wreck behind him.
That sounds easy enough for a guy who has won four races this season and, unlike Johnson, put together one of the strongest summers of any driver. But fans might recall last year, when Truex tapered off as the playoffs went on before falling out of the standings, so another strong start is a must given the circumstances.
This might come as a surprise, but Kyle Busch sits on the pole Sunday.
Kidding aside, that is seven poles for Busch on the year as he looks to take recent strong momentum and grab an early win to start the playoffs.
NASCAR on NBC provided his reaction to taking yet another first-place start:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
.@KyleBusch was nearly three-tenths of a second faster than 2nd place, as Toyota goes 1-2-3 in qualifying. #NASCARPlayoffs #Rowdy18 https://t.co/BnrLymxkOQ2017-9-15 23:49:07
"It's because I'm in a Toyota," Busch said, according to Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com. "Great adjustments right there. Just trying to get the balance right. That was all she had."
To keep it short and sweet, Busch has six top-10 finishes in a row, including his only two wins of the season during that span.
In other words, unlike Johnson, he doesn't wait for the playoffs to come around before he's contending each week and making a push for a championship.
Busch has the talent to make a title push by carrying his recent momentum into Sunday. Johnson and the others will have something to say about such a notion, though.
Stats and info courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.