Gibbs-Penske battle continues

Jun 26, 2019 3:00 AM

The NASCAR Cup Series visits Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois for the 19th straight season in what will be the 17th of 36 races on the season.

It’s hard to believe we’re almost half over, but time flies when we’re having fun and I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed watching this particular racing package on 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks that features aero ducts and engines that produce 550 horsepower.

This will be the sixth race on a 1.5-mile track this season and ninth using this package and the scoreboard reads: 4 wins each for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. Chevrolet has performed better in recent races using this package with Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman looking strong, but Gibbs and Penske have shown a slight edge over everyone. Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing still have yet to win this season.

When including the results from shorts tracks and superspeedways, the Gibbs edge is far more pronounced having won 10 of the 16 races. Penske has five wins between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano while the only Chevrolet only win came with Elliott at Talladega. That’s it. And it’s hard to believe because the racing has been good with more teams getting better and lots of passing. But in the end, it’s been kind of the same result week after week.

Will this week at Chicago be any different? It’s doubtful and the opinion is not just based on 2019 with the new race package. A Joe Gibbs Toyota has been dominating at Chicagoland, winning five of the last six races there, including wins in the last four years. Last season it was Kyle Busch winning for the second time there and the two years before that it was Martin Truex Jr. winning both and in 2015 it was Denny Hamlin. Those JGR drivers are the trio with 10 wins combined so far in 2019. They also finished seventh or better at Chicago last season, including a sixth-place by the Erik Jones, the only winless JGR driver this season.

Last year’s Chicago race doesn’t have any relevance to Sunday’s event because of the different race package being used, but it should be noted that SHR cars were the best with all four leading laps. Aric Almirola led a race-high 70 laps, Clint Bowyer led 21 laps and finished fifth and Kevin Harvick led 39 laps and finished third.

Harvick should still be looked at as a serious candidate to win, although his low 9-2 odds for a driver not winning a race this season might be hard to swallow. Buf Chicagoland has always been a great track for him right from the beginning. He won the inaugural race there in 2001 as a rookie and then won again in 2002. He hasn’t won there since but his 10 top-five finishes in 18 starts is the most in track history. He and Kurt Busch are the only drivers to start in all 18 Chicago races.

Another reason to support Harvick is how well he ran at Kansas on May 11 where he led a race-high 104 laps but then got a flat tire with 90 laps to go forcing him to settle for 13th-place. Kansas and Chicagoland are probably the two closest layouts on the circuit.

Kyle Larson’s 7th-place average finish at Chicagoland is the best among all active drivers and he’s absolutely starving for a win this season. He’s had top-five finishes in three of his five starts including a career-best runner-up there last season.

Another Chevy driver starving for a win is Jimmie Johnson who owns a 9.6 average finish in 17 Chicagoland starts and owns the track record with 695 laps led. However, it’s one of three tracks the seven-time champ has never won on. He’s got 83 wins between 20 tracks, and many of those are 1.5-mile tracks, but not Chicago. His Hendrick teammates Bowman and Elliott have been steady of late with this package so it shouldn’t be too long before Johnson eventually gets his first win since Dover in 2017. A span of 75 races has passed since then.

Brad Keselowski has two wins at Chicago and has finished ninth or better in his last eight starts there and he found his way to the front leading laps in seven of those races. The main reason to trust him this week is that he won at Kansas and Atlanta this season. That’s two of the five races on 1.5-mile layouts this season. I like the odds of him doing again and getting 8-1  to win is very fair.

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