Chase for the Champions always comes down to Jimmie

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The field is set and NASCAR’s playoffs, Chase for the Championship, begins this Sunday.

Chicagoland Speedway is one of five 1.5-mile tracks we’ll see over the next 10 races that will determine the winner. Doing well on those 1.5-mile tracks is the gateway to a Championship.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to participate in all eight Chase races and has compiled an amazing 20 wins with an 8.9 average finish position during those 80 starts. In each of those five winning seasons, he did so by being the best on the 1.5-mile tracks.

When looking at all the contenders’ performances on 1.5-mile tracks this season, we have five different winners. Tony Stewart won at Las Vegas, Greg Biffle at Texas, Denny Hamlin at Kansas, Kasey Kahne at Charlotte and Brad Keselowski at Kentucky. That type of parity makes this Chase wide open.

You’ll notice that Johnson didn’t win any of those races among his three victories and yet he’s listed as the 5-2 favorite to win the Championship. Stewart has three wins, which gives him a much better start than he had last season heading into the Chase. After 26 races last season, Stewart didn’t have any wins, but in the final 10, he won five, including three of the 1.5-mile tracks. Stewart is listed at 8-1.

Johnson is going to be hard to beat, but how about the chances of Biffle just from a value standpoint? He excels at the 1.5-mile tracks and has been fighting near the top of the standings all season with consistent runs weekly. The LVH currently has Biffle at 12-1.

To get a jump on Chicagoland this week, the best reference tool is to look at what happened in the April race at Kansas and Kentucky in June. Although unique in its own way, Chicago can be set-up similar to those two because of the similar banking at 18 degrees.

Denny Hamlin tops the charts having won at Kansas and finishing third at Kentucky. However, over his career he’s had a 19.2 average finish in six starts with a best result of fifth in 2009. The big difference with Hamlin this season from years past is his performance on these type of tracks. He used to be a driver to only fear at Martinsville, Richmond and Pocono. Now his team has him dialed in almost everywhere.

Johnson has an average finish of tenth at Chicago, which is where he wound up last year. The result kind of got him out the gate slowly in his quest to win his sixth consecutive title. Johnson was third at Kansas and sixth at Kentucky this season.

The king of Chicago throughout the existence of the track has been Stewart with three wins, including last year. He’s had an average finish of 8.7 over his career, but was kind of sluggish at both Kansas and Kentucky. On the basis of his Las Vegas victory, a track that is also close to Chicago’s banking, he also has to be considered a contender.

Martin Truex Jr. has been fast on all the horsepower tracks and it wouldn’t surprise to see him finally get a win here. His best opportunity of the season came at Kansas when he dominated the entire race and with a few laps to go while leading, slowed for some odd reason. They still don’t know what happened and it allowed Denny Hamlin to pass.

 After a couple laps, Truex Jr’s car came back to life and was running the same speeds he had before, but it was too late to catch Hamlin and he settled for runner-up. We saw Stewart come to life in the Chase with no wins last year, so we know it can be done.

Jeff Gordon fit’s the same criteria as Truex Jr with no wins coming into the Chase. He won at Chicago in 2006 and finished fifth at Kentucky this year. Kevin Harvick won the first two Chicago races and was runner-up last season. He’s been looking very good lately and might also be another winless driver to make some things happen at Chicago and beyond.

Matt Kenseth is a two-time Chicago runner-up and teammate Greg Biffle’s best run was fourth in 2008, his only top-10 finish in nine starts.

Micah Roberts is a former race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday.  Contact Micah at [email protected].

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