It’s NASCAR playoff time and the green flag for the Chase for the 2016 Championship begins Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway, the seventh race this season on a 1.5-mile layout and the first of five in the 10 race Chase.
Do well on these type of tracks over the next 10 weeks and chances are great of hoisting the championship trophy at Homestead on Nov. 20.
As a refresher, let’s review how this playoff format is structured. There are 16 drivers competing and they are stacked with bonus points based on wins this season. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski each won four races during the 26 regular season events and will be given 3-points for each. They’re both 3-points ahead of Denny Hamlin, who won three times. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray didn’t win, so they start at the lowest total with no bonus points.
The 10-race Chase is broken down into four stages, the first three consisting of three races each with the four worst performers of each being eliminated from contention. If an eligible driver wins any of those three races, they immediately advance to the next stage no matter how points they accumulate.
The drivers that don’t win during a three-race stage have to advance to the next round by accumulating the most points.
The first round consists of races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover. The next round, featuring only 12 eligible drivers, has races at Charlotte, Kansas and a huge wild card event at Talladega as the turn race.
Eight drivers will battle for the right to advance to the final four at Homestead with races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. Then it’s one race for all the marbles at Homestead where the best finisher among the four wins the title.
The driver coming in that is at peak performance in all facets with his own driving skills, high performing reliable engines and a great crew on pit stops is Denny Hamlin, who is riding a career-best eight-race streak of top-10 finishes that includes two wins.
Last season he kicked off the Chase with a win at Chicagoland and he’s got tracks in each of the stages where he can win at like Talladega, Martinsville and Homestead.
The only negative going against Hamlin is he’s had only one top-five finish (Charlotte) between the six races on 1.5-mile tracks. It’s kind of a surprise because all of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have fared well on those tracks led by Las Vegan Kyle Busch with wins at Texas and Kansas. Busch is also the defending Cup champion. Martin Truex Jr., who uses Gibbs equipment, led 392 of 400 laps at Charlotte in late May in the most dominating performance in track history.
Brad Keselowski also has two wins on 1.5-mile tracks taking the checkers at Las Vegas and Kentucky, which was the last race (July 9) run on a cookie-cutter layout. Keselowski ran the gauntlet clean in 2012 with his first and only Cup title.
Kevin Harvick won his only Cup title in 2014 and did it by being the most consistent and he’s got that going for him again this year, even though he’s captured only two wins this year. His 13 top-five finishes are tops in the series and his 18 top-10s are three more than any other driver. His 8.5 average finish is also best in the series.
Let’s go with Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Keselowski to make the final four at Homestead and then go with Hamlin to win his first career title.
As for this week’s race at Chicago, let’s go with Keselowski to win. He’s won two of the past four races there and has been strong on 1.5s this season.