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Chicagoland 400

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When the green flag drops Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway, it begins the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Championship, NASCAR's version of the playoffs. And the format that has been tweaked over the past few seasons now actually gives the fans something similar to other sports with a major build up for the finale.

“It’s very comparable," said 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch. "The way that the 2004 Chase was introduced that puts us into a 10-week stretch of accumulating the most points or doing the best in the postseason. Now, with our new structure where it’s three races, advance, three races, advance, it’s a bit tougher because you can have a part failure come up in one of those three and completely kill the whole season. Yet, you’ve got to be your best at the end. That is what this format is all about. You have a regular-season atmosphere; you have your playoff season, Chase atmosphere.”

Sunday's event will be the seventh race this season on a 1.5-mile layout and the first of five in the 10-race Chase. Do well on these type of tracks over the next 10 weeks and chances are great of hoisting the championship trophy in the Chase finale, or NASCAR's Super Bowl, at Homestead on November 20.

As a refresher, let's review how this playoff format is structure. There are 16 drivers competing and they are stacked with bonus points based on wins this season. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski each won four races during the 26 regular season events and will be given 3-points for each. They're both 3-points ahead of Denny Hamlin, who won three times. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray didn't win, so they start at the lowest total with no bonus points.

The 10-race Chase is broken down into four stages, the first three consisting of three races each with the four worst performers of each being eliminated from contention. If an eligible driver wins any of those three races, they immediately advance to the next stage no matter how points they accumulate. The drivers that don't win during a three-race stage have to advance to the next round by accumulating the most points.

The first round consists of races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover. The next round, featuring only 12 eligible drivers, has races at Charlotte, Kansas and a huge wild card event at Talladega as the turn race. Eight drivers will battle for the right to advance to the final four at Homestead with races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. Then it's one race for all the marbles at Homestead where the best finisher among the four win the title.

The driver coming in that is at peak performance in all facets with his own driving skills, high performing reliable engines and a great crew on pit stops is Denny Hamlin who is riding a career-best eight race streak of top-10 finishes that includes two wins. Last season he kicked off the Chase with a win at Chicagoland and he's got tracks in each of the stages where he'll be favored at like Talladega and Martinsville and he's also a two-time winner at Homestead.

The only negative going against Hamlin is that he's had only one top-five finish (Charlotte) between the six races on 1.5-mile tracks. It's kind of a surprise because all of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have fared well on those tracks led by Las Vegan Kyle Busch with wins at Texas and Kansas. Busch is also the defending Cup champion and feels the competition might be a little stiffer for him this season.

“I kind of feel about the same (as 2015), actually," Kyle Busch said. "I feel like we kind of are right even with where we were last year – kind of doing the same things – but there are other guys who are better than us, so we’re just going to have to figure out how to out-race them and out-finish them when we need to. A couple of our ‘teammates’ – the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) especially – he’s just been stellar fast each and every week. He’s had some bad luck go his way and hasn’t been able to finish all the races where he should have. You can see that in the Chase, as well – something happening to you and taking you out of a round. That’s why you’ve got to be careful and try to again minimize your bad days and make it forward.”

Martin Truex Jr., who isn't 'officially' a Gibbs teammate, but uses their equipment, led 392 of 400 laps at Charlotte in late May in the most dominating performance in track history. The main concern about wagering on him to win is just as Kyle noted with the pit crew blowing so many winning opportunities. One or two errors happens to everyone, but when the errors happen more than a dozen times in 26 races, it's more than just a trend, it's the reality of who they truly are. Think is similar terms of a running-back in football who keeps fumbling the ball.

Brad Keselowski also has two wins on 1.5-mile tracks taking the checkers at Las Vegas and Kentucky, which was the last race (July 9) run on a cookie-cutter layout. Keselowski ran the gauntlet clean in 2012 with his first and only Cup title.

Kevin Harvick won his only Cup title in 2014 and did it by being the most consistent and he's got that going for him again this year, even though he's captured only two wins this year. He's still the favorite to win it all on the basis of his 13 top-five finishes, which are tops in the series, and his 18 top-10s are three more than any other driver. His 8.5 average finish is also best in the series.

Let's go with Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Keselowski to make the final four at Homestead and then go with Hamlin to win his first career title at 10/1 odds.

Odds to win 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup - per Westgate Las Vegas Superbook
Kevin Harvick 5/1
Kyle Busch 7/1
Martin Truex Jr. 8/1
Brad Keselowski 8/1
Carl Edwards 8/1
Joey Logano 8/1
Matt Kenseth 8/1
Denny Hamlin 10/1
Jimmie Johnson 10/1
Kyle Larson 10/1
Chase Elliott 25/1
Kurt Busch 20/1
Tony Stewart 30/1
Austin Dillon 80/1
Jamie McMurray 100/1
Field (All Others) 500/1

As for this week's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicago, let's go with Keselowski to win. He's won two of the past four races there and has been strong on 1.5s this season. And of course, all the Gibbs car will be chasing him. Harvick is going to be right up there again -- he won the first two Cup races in Chicago history.

We can also expect Kyle Larson to be in the top-10 all race -- he's really coming on strong over the last month -- and both his career starts were top-10s (third in 2014, seventh last year).

Jimmie Johnson hasn't won since the fifth race of the season at Fontana, and he's never won at Chicago in 14 career starts -- runner-up three times. The six-time Cup Champ has a 9.3 average finish at Chicago.

Top-5 Chicago Finish Prediction:
1) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
2) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
3) #19 Carl Edwards (8/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)

NASCAR Expert Picks
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