When looking at the Chase schedule, nothing was designed to make it easy to win. But Jimmie Johnson had made it easy and minor changes were made to keep the fans attention and keep drivers on their toes! To win the Chase, drivers have to be strong on similarly-configured 1.5-mile tracks. Chicagoland, Kansas, Charlotte, and Texas require many of the same strengths from teams and they comprise 40 percent of the playoff schedule. If one adds Homestead into the mix — a true 1.5-mile oval with progressive banking — this track type makes up half of the Chase schedule.
When NASCAR changed the rules regarding Chase eligibility this year to make positions 11 and 12 wild cards that would be determined by a combination of wins and points position, they added an extremely interesting wrinkle that kept everyone guessing until the final lap of Richmond. However, ultimately the top 12 in points made the show and all but two of the Chasers have at least one win to their credit in 2011.
With the wild cards in play, as well as bonus points awarded during the Chase for winning, the emphasis on finishing first created a wild season in which drivers gambled on late-race strategies with uninhibited abandon. When the checkers waved over Richmond last week, the playoff contenders had recorded 21 of 26 race wins. That trend is likely to continue, because in the past four years of the Chase when 12 drivers have been eligible for the championship, only three of 40 races have been won by non-Chase drivers.
So enough of the small talk about the Chases changes, the wild card spots let’s get down to who are the favorites at Chicagoland!
If the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks are indeed critical to Chase success this season, Kurt Busch is going to be a factor. He remains the only driver in the field with a perfect record of top-10s in the six races run so far at Vegas, Texas, Charlotte, Kansas, Kentucky, and Atlanta. Three of those tracks host their second event during the Chase, and this week’s venue of Chicagoland has a lot of similarities to Kansas. Busch seems to thrive on controversy and his escalating feud with Jimmie Johnson will provide the team and driver with added incentive to beat them on the track. The bad blood may boil over later in the Chase if one or the other is mathematically eliminated from contention, but for now owners should look for them to give one another a lot of room on the track.
Busch has more top-10s, but Carl Edwards has been stronger overall on the cookie-cutter courses with five top-fives in six starts this season. One of these was a victory in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas and while he hasn’t won again since that early-season race, he finished fifth at Kansas, Kentucky, and Atlanta. NASCAR’s new points system featuring one-point differences between each position through the field is liable to reward consistent top-10 results. The teams know this as well and they will be striving for reliability as well as strength. It only takes a little luck to turn consistent top-five finishes into victories and the winner of the Chase will almost certainly win at least one of the races on those 1.5-mile tracks.
Jeff Gordon has been almost as consistently strong at Chicagoland as Stewart and he brings more current momentum to the track. Perhaps he should be one of the favorites, but some might worry a little that he peaked too soon at the end of the regular season. If intuition has failed you in 2011 and numbers are more important this week, however, the No. 24 team’s record on this track is impressive. Gordon has only two poor performances on the 1.5-miler. He finished 17th in the inaugural race and was 33rd in 2005. Every other result has been 11th or better and includes six top-five finishes. One of those ended in a 2006 victory. More important, his past two races on this track and his past three races of the 2011 season have ended in top-fives, which gives him the perfect mix of track performance and recent momentum. He is also the winner of the most recent “cookie-cutter” race at Atlanta.
Kyle Busch’s name is being bandied about as a threat to take the Chase from Johnson, but he’s going to have to reverse a negative trend on the cookie-cutter courses to do so. In six races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, he has only two top-15 finishes and an average of worse than 20th. Of course, one of these two top-10s was a victory in the inaugural race at Kentucky, which suggests he is capable of defying the odds, but the likelihood of him doing that four times in the last 10 races is immense. Busch has one victory at Chicagoland in 2008, but his last two efforts ended in a 33rd and 17th.
Kevin Harvick’s victory last year may have given the team some momentum, and he shares the points lead with Busch, but he is another driver that will struggle if past performance on this track type is a clear indication. He’s run a lot stronger on the “cookie-cutter” courses than the No. 18 and has actually finished in the top 20 in each this year. Harvick does have one win on this track type in 2011, but that came as the result of a fuel mileage gamble at Charlotte in May and his only other top-10 on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks was a seventh at Atlanta. His average finish on “cookie-cutter” tracks is 12th and that is closer to where fans can expect him to finish this week.