By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
The Chase is on.
After 26 regular season races to set the 16 driver field for the 2016 edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Speedway for the opening salvo of the Chase and Sunday’s 16th annual running of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.
As one of the newer tracks on the circuit, having joined in 2001, the 1.5 mile Chicagoland Speedway finds itself front and center as the Chase begins. The track, which only hosts the Cup Series once each season, boasts banking of 18 degrees as well as a curved back straightaway that allows drivers to carry their momentum around the entirety of the track. Having not been repaved in its 16 year history, the track also allows for racing from the bottom groove all the way up to the top of the track, making for great racing for the lead at times.
While all 43 drivers will have an opportunity to battle for the race win, the reality is that all eyes will be on the 16 Chase contenders as a slip in this opening race at Chicago could spell doom in their hopes of moving on to the next round after Dover in two weeks.
By the Numbers
Race Length: 267 laps, 400.5 miles
Track Size: 1.5 mile tri-oval
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
Pace Car Speed: 55 mph
2015 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin (Started 29th, nine laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Joey Logano – 189.414 mph – 9/13/2013
Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings:
- No. 48 – Jimmie Johnson – 114.1
- No. 18 – Kyle Busch – 106.1
- No. 20 – Matt Kenseth – 103.4
- No. 14 – Tony Stewart – 101.2
- No. 42 – Kyle Larson – 100.4
- No. 4 – Kevin Harvick – 98.7
- No. 2 – Brad Keselowski – 97.3
- No. 41 – Kurt Busch – 90.1
- No. 19 – Carl Edwards – 89.6
- No. 78 – Martin Truex, Jr. – 87.8
From the Driver’s Seat
“Chicago is one of those tracks that we only visit once a year, and it’s obviously up in the Midwest where they have tougher winters than other tracks on the circuit, so I feel like that track changes a lot from year to year. Chicago is beginning to get to be one of the rougher track surfaces we go to and the pavement has started to age pretty well. We’ve also been seeing more tire fall-off and the groove moves around as well. I think the biggest thing is to get your car to work running around the bottom when you run those qualifying laps, but you also need to be versatile enough to be able to look around searching for grip because the track isn’t necessarily going to be the same as it was the last time we raced there. We’re always trying every week to get the best finishes we can, and with several cars being eliminated at the end of each round of the Chase, we just need to try and do our best each weekend to get results that hopefully allow us to move on,” said Matt Kenseth.
Last Time at Chicago
Even an early race spin, a torn ACL, and being at a disadvantage on tires couldn’t keep Denny Hamlin from winning at Chicagoland Speedway last season.
Hamlin started 29th before spinning on lap two and going down a lap to the leaders. Luckily, Hamlin was able to catch a caution at just the right time to get back on the lead lap. When the final caution of the day flew at lap 259, Hamlin and crew chief Dave Rogers elected to stay out on old tires, along with Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, which would turn out to be the winning move.
On the ensuing restart, Hamlin took Gordon and Kurt Busch three-wide into Turn 1, getting his No. 11 Toyota to stick and make the pass. From that point on, it was all Hamlin as he pulled away from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Carl Edwards, for his second win of the 2015 season.
“I want to thank this FedEx Ground team. This is unbelievable. Our Camry was so fast today. I told them when they changed it – they changed it to FedEx Ground just for this race because we needed consistency and reliability and that’s what FedEx Ground is and that’s what we were today. Coming back from a lap down – we had a fast car. We were running under green over and over and over and I thought we would never get back on the lead lap. Thanks to all of our partners at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) for building a fast race car. Everyone that helps support this. Can’t thank Sprint and the fans enough – this was a great race to start the Chase,” said Hamlin.
“It was ballsy, but I’d been stuck so many times three-wide in the middle. The front cars almost have a disadvantage to the back cars the way it all plays out. We got a great restart and I just held it wide open through (turns) one and two and it stuck. We were able to get in that clean air and take off.”
Who to Watch
- Kyle Larson – Though Larson has never won at Chicago, he is coming into his first Chase with a head of steam after finishing in the top-3 in the three most recent races of the 2016 season. In his two previous starts at Chicago, Larson has finishes of third and seventh, with 22 total laps led, for an average finish of 5.0.
- Jimmie Johnson – Of all of the tracks that Johnson has won at throughout his career, he still has a goose egg in the win column at Chicago, which he would like to rectify this weekend. In 14 previous starts, Johnson has seven top-five finishes, 10 top-10 finishes, two poles, 577 laps led, and an average finish of 9.3.
- Brad Keselowski – Keselowski has found much success in the Windy City during his tenure in the Sprint Cup Series, with even numbered years providing more success than the odd numbered years, so perhaps it’s time for the No. 2 car to shine once again at Chicago. Keselowski has two wins (2012 and 2014), three top-five finishes, five top-10 finishes, 144 laps led, and an average finish of 10.3 in seven starts.
- Tony Stewart – When looking at all-time wins at Chicago, Stewart is right at the top of the board as he makes his final start at the 1.5 mile track this weekend looking to add to his win collection. Stewart has three wins at the track (2004, 2007, and 2011), along with eight top-five finishes, 10 top-10 finishes, one pole, 434 laps led, and an average finish of 10.4 in 14 starts.
- Matt Kenseth – With his Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota power under the hood, Kenseth has to be one of the favorites to end the day in victory lane on Sunday as the Wisconsin native has run fairly well at the track since it joined the circuit in 2001. In the 15 races since then, Kenseth has one win (2013), four top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, one pole, 438 laps led, and an average finish of 11.3.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, September 16
- NSCS Practice (1:30 pm to 2:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
- NSCS Qualifying (6:45 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Saturday, September 17
- NSCS Practice (10:30 am to 11:25 am – CNBC)
- NSCS Final Practice (1:30 pm to 2:20 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Sunday, September 18
- NSCS Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 (2:30 pm – 267 laps, 400.5 miles – NBC Sports Network)