The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sunday with the Challenger Round.
This week, NASCAR heads to Chicagoland Speedway to kick off the ten race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The myAFibRisk.com 400 is the first race of the Chase, race #1 of the three race Challenger Round and race #27 of the 2015 season.
Chicagoland Speedway is a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) intermediate track located in Joliet, Ill. It’s played host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2001. It’s asphalt surface is one of the oldest surfaces we race on in NASCAR. Only Texas, Atlanta and Auto Club have an older surface.
It’s not one of my favorite tracks, but it’s somewhat moving up my list. I’m sure how great the race will be on Sunday with the 2015 aero package that’s been a resounding meh.
With a win moving you onto the Contender Round, I predict that Kevin Harvick will be singing Sweet Home Chicago when the checkered flag flies.
The next race is the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. “The Magic Mile” is a 1.058 mile (1.703 km) oval speedway. Think of Loudon as Martinsville on steroids. Like Martinsville, Loudon is a one-groove race track where passing is at a premium. Unlike Martinsville, Loudon is not known for being caution-heavy. Fuel mileage comes into play here.
With New Hampshire being a one-groove race track, rhythm is vital. Oddly, success at Martinsville doesn’t translate to Loudon. In the end, I think it’ll be Kyle Busch dining on lobster after winning the Sylvania 300.
The Challenger Round comes to a close in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. The “Monster Mile” is a one mile (1.6 km) concrete speedway. Think of an enlarged Bristol and you’ve got what Dover looks like.
Dover, however, is another track that has fallen down my list of favorite tracks over the last few years. It’s so hard to pass at Dover and there’s none of the beating, banging and crashing you’d also see at Bristol. It’s not that the races at Dover are unwatchable or even bad, it’s just okay. I don’t set my expectations for Dover too high for that reason.
With the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet having won at the Monster Mile ten times, you’d might expect me to say this is Jimmie Johnson’s race to lose. You’d be wrong. I’ve seen nothing from Johnson since winning at Dover in May that tells me he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the Chase. Even in the Dover race he won in May, he wasn’t the dominant car. He certainly wasn’t up near the front all race long. In fact, he was out of the top-ten for a good long time. He played the pit game to get up front in the final 20 laps and the lack of tire falloff allowed him to hold off the dominant cars of Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. and take the checkered flag.
I also don’t see Truex being a factor. Since his win at Pocono in June, he’s not been up front a lot.
I’m going on a limb with this one and some of you will think I’m crazy for making this pick. After 400 laps and 400 miles, I predict the winner will be the retiring Jeff Gordon. He’ll get his first win of the 2015 season, sixth at the Monster Mile and punch his ticket to the Contender Round.
Again, that pick is going on a limb considering Gordon’s top-ten chances this season has been either hit or miss. He’s got 13 top-ten finishes in 26 races. That means he’s finished half of the 2015 season in the top-ten. However, he’s only finished in the top-five three times this season. One of those was thanks to a whole mess of drivers running out of fuel at Pocono, turning what was likely a 21st place finish into a podium finish.
Despite the less than stellar stats, I believe the lineup of tracks favor Jeff Gordon making a deep run into the Chase. I would even say he can make a run at the title. It’s only the Challenger Round that Gordon advancing is up in the air. If he breaks out as I expect him to, he’ll be the one to beat in the Contender Round. Why do I think that? You’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out.
So after Dover, 12 drivers will advance to the Contender Round. Four drivers, however, will be eliminated from the title hunt. Here’s the 12 drivers I see advancing:
(After the first three drivers, the nine drivers making the next round on points are listed in no particular order. So don’t harp on me for listing one driver over another.)
- Kevin Harvick
- Kyle Busch
- Jeff Gordon
- Jimmie Johnson
- Matt Kenseth
- Joey Logano
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Kurt Busch
- Carl Edwards
- Brad Keselowski
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Ryan Newman
That means Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer will be left out after Dover. I don’t see Hamlin moving past the Challenger Round because of the torn right ACL. While he finished sixth at Richmond (his first race with the torn ACL), I don’t see how he’ll be able to race with it at tracks like Chicagoland, Loudon and Dover where lateral forces are at a high. For the first time Chase drivers Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, I haven’t seen enough from them to tell me they’ll do anything but fall out after Dover. With Michael Waltrip Racing closing its doors at the end of the 2015 season and his future being up in the air, I can’t see Clint Bowyer doing much at all in the Chase.
So that about wraps up my preview for the Challenger Round. Come back tomorrow for my preview of the Contender Round.