NASCAR at Chicagoland 2016: Preview, Prediction for the TMNT 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2016

NASCAR at Chicagoland 2016: Preview, Prediction for the TMNT 400

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    Chet Strange/Associated Press

    The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set, and the playoffs start this Sunday, September 18 at Chicagoland Speedway, site of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.

    There are some new faces in the Chase. In the third year of this current format, Ryan Newman is out, but new faces to this Chase are Tony Stewart, Chase Elliott, Auston Dillon, Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson.

    Those five drivers have a lot of work to do to exit the Round of 16 (formerly known as the Challenger Round) and advance to the Round of 12 (formerly known as the Contender Round).

    This round may as well be the short-track circuit. We have a classic 1.5-mile intermediate track to commence the Chase, but Loudon and Dover close it out—two hard milers.

    We’ve waited 26 weeks of racing for this moment. Let’s preview the TMNT 400 and the start of the Chase.

By the Numbers: Chicagoland Speedway

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    Matt Marton/Associated Press

    The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400

    Place: Chicagoland Speedway; Joliet, IL

    Date: Sunday, September 18, 2016

    Green flag: 2:46 p.m. ET, NBCSN

    Distance: 400 miles

    Defending winner: Denny Hamlin

The Chase Grid

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    1. Kyle Busch

    2. Brad Keselowski

    3. Denny Hamlin

    4. Kevin Harvick

    5. Carl Edwards

    6. Martin Truex Jr.

    7. Matt Kenseth

    8. Jimmie Johnson

    9. Joey Logano

    10. Kyle Larson

    11. Tony Stewart

    12. Kurt Busch

    13. Chris Buescher

    14. Chase Elliott

    15. Austin Dillon

    16. Jamie McMurray

Can Anybody Beat the Toyotas?

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    Chet Strange/Associated Press

    Whatever it is about this aero package, the Toyota nailed it down. Through 26 races, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars—plus the satellite affiliation with Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr—won 13.

    Call it in the air, heads or Toyota.

    To bet against the Toyotas is a fool’s errand.

    "I think the other cars that are out there, there's so many … well‑prepared cars, I think this is going to be a battle," Gibbs said in Kenny Bruce’s story. "I think …  there's no way that you can I think pick a favorite right now because it's really three‑race playoffs (to get to Homestead and the championship round)."

    Yeah, but winning all those races, dominating laps and racking top fives, Toyota will win the Sprint Cup. It's just a matter of which one of these five will do it.

    "I would say I feel pretty confident in our cars," Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Wheeler told NBCSN after the race. "That's a good feeling to have. But you always had this feeling of you can get beat. If you're not at 100 percent you can get beat. I feel good now that if we hit 100 percent, we will win."

What Can We Expect from the New Faces?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Is it safe to say Chris Buescher will be the low-man out of the Round of 16? He was lucky to win that fog-shortened race at Pocono back in August, which shook up the Chase picture.

    But nobody really believes he can contend for the Sprint Cup, do they?

    Buescher told the Associated Press (h/t St. Louis Post-Dispatch):

    We look at this first round, and we want to make it past that round. We want to move through the Chase. Then we can re-evaluate from there. If we can keep going farther and improve our program each and every weekend, that’s always going to be what we’re aiming to do.

    In some ways, it’s easy to predict how the first round or two of the Chase will shake out. Since at most three drivers can advance on wins, that leaves nine spots to go to the highest points earners.

    The bottom four—13 through 16—have shown why they’re ranked where they are. That includes drivers like Dillon, Elliott and Buescher.

    Of those mentioned above, Elliott seems the pick to advance so long as he can avoid driving like he did in the final third of the season. That’s where his performance dovetailed from one of seasoned dominance (though winless) to rookie gaffes.

    Having new faces in the Chase does shake up the playoffs in a good, good way.

Will Jimmie Johnson Miss the Round of 12 for the Second Straight Year?

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    What is up with the No. 48 team? The way Jimmie Johnson has been driving, you’d think he was an aged veteran with one foot out the garage.

    NBCSN’s Jeff Burton said during a recent broadcast, "This does not look like a Chad Knaus No. 48 team! They just don’t have the speed. They seem unorganized. They just don’t seem ready for this Chase that is about to start."

    Fortieth place at Watkins Glen and 33rd at Darlington. His average finish of 15.3 this year ties his career low. That’s not what we expect from a six-time champ.

    But there are some bright spots. He earned back-to-back top-10s at Bristol and Michigan, and he does have the benefit of Dover in this round—a place where he boasts 10 wins.

    The recent Chase tweaks may have "Jimmie-proofed" the Chase as we once knew it, but on the same token, the playoffs don’t favor the slow burn, rather the isolated bursts of excellence.

    "I don’t have to beat them for 10 weeks," Johnson said, per Jeff Gluck's USA Today story. "I’ve just got to beat them once."

    Johnson should reach the Round of 12, but his Chevy engine with this aero package is not suited to win long term.

Dark-Horse Pick: Jamie McMurray

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    Ralph Lauer/Associated Press

    Seeing as no driver from outside this top 16 will win a race in the Chase, and only four drivers in the Chase lack wins, the hunt for dark horses is a bit narrow.

    Look no farther than Jamie McMurray.

    He squeaked into the Chase by finishing 16th on the Grid, but he has one top five from 13 starts at the track.

    The No. 1 car has been all about points this season, and if he relies on that strategy, he’ll have the yellow stripe ripped off his car before you can say, "Onto Charlotte."

    "You just have to get the most points you can and try to win," McMurray said, per Bob Pockrass' story.

    McMurray finished ninth at Chicagoland in 2014. A finish of that nature will help him going forward, but that average finish of 20.8 in Joliet doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence for this team.

And the Winner Is...Denny Hamlin

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Not only is Hamlin driving hot (winner at Watkins Glen and Richmond in the final few weeks of the regular season) and driving the hottest engines (Toyota), he’s the defending winner of this race. Remember that one? The one where he had the torn ACL?

    "Anytime you can win going into the Chase, it really gives you a huge momentum boost," Hamlin said in John Oreovicz's story, per "We were already on a roll, it seems, over the last two months and this just caps it off. This is as peaky as you can get going into the Chase."

    And since NASCAR adopted the new playoff format in 2014, Hamlin has finished sixth and first in the opening race of the Chase.

    All that points to a big effort and a second straight win.