NASCAR Sprint Cup: Chicagoland Speedway Preview, Predictions and Schedule

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2011

JOLIET, IL - JULY 10:  Track safety works tend to Bill Elliott, driver of the #21 Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford and Robby Gordon, driver of the MAPEI / Menards Toyota, after they were involved in a crash during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LIFELOCK.COM 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway on July 10, 2010 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The power-packed Chase field heads to Chicagoland Speedway for the first time in the 10-week playoff, with the chance of hot tempers and paybacks becoming detrimental to leading title contenders.

The level of competition is reaching all-time highs; points are tight even with the drivers who go into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with three bonus points for each of their wins.

Chicagoland Speedway replaces Auto Club Speedway in the Chase schedule and became the kick-off track rather than the track at Loudon, New Hampshire, which is now second on the roster.

NASCAR made the switch to a major metropolitan area, which is home to more than nine million people, many of whom are avid sports fans.

The glitz and glitter of the big city brings more prestige to the first race of the Chase. Media coverage will be in abundance, as will the festivities surrounding the race.

The GEICO 400 will have the GEICO Caveman, seen in their commercials, as the Grand Marshal for the Sunday race. It is also the 10th anniversary of Chicagoland Speedway.

The 12 drivers in the Chase include five previous Cup champions: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.

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Gordon is in prime condition to make a run for his fifth title with his crew chief, Alan Gustafson at the helm of his team. He really, really wants to tie his teammate, Johnson, and block him from his sixth consecutive title.

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10:  (Back row L-R) Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyot
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

There are five tracks that Johnson has not won at, with Chicagoland being one of them, along with Watkins Glen, Michigan, Homestead-Miami and Kentucky.

Denny Hamlin will be out to prove he can once again be a title contender despite nearly missing the Chase, but he secured the second wild card slot because of his one win this season.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have been hot with their four wins and may be the bad boys of the Chase who will shake up the battle for the title.

Carl Edwards will likely come on strong even though he hasn't won since the third race of the season.

Ryan Newman has been the top dog at Stewart-Haas Racing, but his win-less boss, Stewart, is quite comfortable with his performance at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland track.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will likely have a stronger car under him with his crew chief, Steve Letarte, backing off from his conservative stance that he took to get the driver of the No. 88 in the Chase.

Brad Keselowski is just flat-out going for wins, and there is no reason to think he can't get one or two with his Penske Dodge. He is a wild card driver with three wins this season and a wild card to be a contender for the title.

You can't discount the drivers who are not in the Chase.

They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they can cause some real problems for the title contenders as they go for wins not only because they are racers, but because they want to showcase the sponsors who have loyally supported them.

The favorites of the Chase contenders to win would have to be Gordon with one win at Chicagoland Speedway and an average finish of 8.6

Other hot picks of that group would be Stewart with an average of 9.5, Johnson with an average of 10.0 and Harvick's average of 11.2 in the finish department.

This may be one of the best Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup titles yet. There is a good chance we won't know who will capture the title until the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

The first practice session will be at 2:00 p.m. on Friday on ESPN2, with the second practice the same day at 6:00 p.m. on Speed TV.

Qualifying for the GEICO 400 will be seen on Speed TV at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, and the race is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.

Update: As of 5:00 p.m. eastern time, the race was still under delay because of rain. Track drying equipment has been on the track and they do expect to get the race underway late this afternoon. Chicagoland Speedway has lights, so they can run at night.

Update No. 2: The race has now been postponed until Monday at noon ET on ESPN weather permitting.

Enjoy the race!