NASCAR’s version of the playoffs – the Sprint Cup Chase – begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway where 16 drivers will be vying for the chance to win and advance to the next round.
There are three races in each round of the 10-race Chase and the bottom four drivers in each round without a win will be eliminated until there are only four drivers remaining for the Championship game Nov. 22 at Homestead.
Several strategies will be applied and last year’s final four showed that there is no clear model for success other than winning races. Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano were all able to point-race themselves into the Championship race at Homestead without winning in any of the three races during the ‘Eliminator Round’.
Kevin Harvick needed a win at Phoenix in the final race of the ‘Eliminator Round’ to advance and he got it, and then went on to win at Homestead for the first championship of his career.
We’re going to see several drivers play the consistent card like Newman and Hamlin did last season. Newman didn’t win a race all season, but was a few laps away from winning the title. Hamlin won only one race, at the wild card of Talladega in the regular season, but he put together nine strong races in a row without a win and advanced.
So when we look at the field and see drivers like Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano peaking at the right time, we also shouldn’t be forget about drivers like Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray or Newman again.
Chicagoland is the seventh race this season on a 1.5-mile track and there will be four more over the course of the Chase which gives cause to look at what happened on the first six 1.5-mile tracks. However, this season has been a tale of two seasons.
The first half was dominated by Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr while Jimmie Johnson led the way with four wins. Then all of a sudden Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing came to life, and Truex and Johnson went to sleep.
It was the craziest dropoff ever seen and it all seems to correlate with the low down force aero-package changes that was introduced at Kentucky in July. That’s the race Kyle Busch began a three race win streak with.
JGR has won eight of the past 11 races. Johnson has won none since then, neither has Harvick. Kenseth has won three of the past six and Logano has won two of the past five.
As great as JGR has been, you have to be extremely impressed with the way the two Penske cars have come on since the major power shift at Kentucky. The aero-package that the season started with will be in play throughout the Chase, but it’s within the low down force package that JGR and Penske found some things that helped them with this regular package.
Keselowski has a run of nine straight top-10s going as he begins the Chase and Logano has finished in the top-five in 10 of his past 13 starts.
Even though Harvick hasn’t won a race since March at Phoenix, I’m going to roll with the Champ to repeat. He’s got 18 top-five finishes in 26 starts. That is some crazy consistency. He’s always in the mix and I’d be surprised if he didn’t win two races in the Chase, especially at Phoenix again where he’s won the past four races in a row.
That Phoenix race is the gateway to Homestead and no one is better than Harvick there. This will be the 15th race ever held at Chicagoland. Tony Stewart leads the way with 3 wins, while Harvick and Keselowski each have 2.
Keselowski kicked off the Chase last season with a win there and also did it in 2012 when he went on to win the championship. Let’s look for him to get it started again with a bang, and then to be Harvick’s top competition during the Chase.
Kenseth will be tough over the next 10 races, Hamlin and Newman will point well and McMurray might surprise like Newman did last year.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].