September 15, 2015
By Micah Roberts
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How in the world is anyone going to stop Joe Gibbs Racing in the Chase?
Ever since the low down force aero package at Kentucky Speedway was introduced in July, they've been on an amazing tear winning eight of the past 11 races as NASCAR's playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday.
Chicagoland will incorporate the same 1.5-mile package that we saw to start the season, tracks where Jimmie Johnson won three of the first four. However, Johnson has kind of struggled ever since the aero-package change at Kentucky. His last win came at Dover May 31, but he still is tied with a series-high four wins on the season. He's 10/1 to win his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title.
There are 16 drivers that qualified for this years Chase and Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch open as the 4/1 co-favorites to be the last man standing at Homestead in late November. Harvick won at Homestead last season to win his first career championship, while Busch has never fared very well in the Chase.
The thing that makes the Chase very interesting is that drivers are rewarded for consistency, as well as wins. Last season we saw Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman advance -- with Harvick -- to the championship game without winning during the 'Eliminator Round'. Newman didn't win a race all season.
There are three stages of three races and drivers that finis in the bottom four each stage will be eliminated, unless they win a race in that round. Four drivers will race head-to-head at Homestead in the final race of the season on equal terms. Best finish wins the title.
Who will be this seasons Hamlin or Newman? Could it be Jamie McMurray? How about Paul Menard? Maybe Hamlin and Newman duplicate their run based on experience and give themselves a chance to win the title again.
Hamlin is part of the red hot JGR squad, even though he's been the only driver to not win a race in the stable during their recent hot run. Hamlin's only win this season came at Martinsville. But Hamlin gets a bunch of bonus points for being in these situations many times. He has the mentality to absorb pressure well. Hamlin is 10/1 to win the title, same as teammate Carl Edwards.
This is seventh race on a 1.5-mile track this season 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, it's been a tale of two seasons. The first half was dominated by Harvick, Martin Truex Jr and Johnson. And then all of a sudden JGR 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 at Kentucky. That's the race Kyle Busch began a three race win streak with. Johnson hasn't won 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 the 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 ina 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 three wins, while Harvick and Keselowski each have two. It's one of four tracks that Johnson has never won at. Brad 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 Keselowski to get it started again witha 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.
Top-5 Chicago Finish Prediction:
1) #2 Brad Keselowski (6/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
3) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (7/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (12/1)
Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook Odds to Win
2015 Sprint Cup Championship
Jimmie Johnson 10/1
Kevin Harvick 4/1
Jeff Gordon 30/1
Brad Keselowski 8/1
Joey Logano 6/1
Matt Kenseth 6/1
Kyle Busch 4/1
Carl Edwards 10/1
Denny Hamilin 10/1
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 20/1
Kurt Busch 12/1
Ryan Newman 100/1
Clint Bowyer 100/1
Jamie McMurray 100/1
Paul Menard 200/1
Martin Truex Jr. 12/1