Overton’s 400 Preview

The NASCAR Cup Series went the entire month of June without a race on a 1.5-mile track, but Sunday's Overton's 400 at Chicagoland Speedway gets us back to the type of racing there's the most of on the season.

This will be the sixth of 11 races on 1.5s and two drivers have combined to win the previous five. Guess who? Good guess, Kevin Harvick has three of them and leads the series with five wins overall and Kyle Busch has the other two on 1.5s and also has the second-most wins on the season with four.

But what about Martin Truex Jr. who won on seven of the 11 1.5s last season? He won last week for his third win of the season and is actually hotter than Harvick and Busch by winning two of the past three races on the schedule. He's been runner-up on the past two 1.5s at Kansas and Charlotte and he also had top-fives at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

Truex comes into Chicagoland with lots of momentum, and I almost forgot to mention...he's won the past two seasons at Chicagoland.

“Yeah, I feel great about that — going for three in a row at Chicago,” Truex said. “A little sad it’s not kicking off the playoffs anymore just because of our record there, but at the same time, great racetrack and excited to go there and see what we can do. We had to overcome some issues the past two years at Chicagoland and hopefully we will have a clean race on Sunday and be there at the end in our No. 78 5-hour ENERGY/Bass Pro Shops Toyota.”

Truex is the co-second choice to win with Kyle Busch at 7/2 odds while Harvick is the 9/4 favorite (Bet $100 to win $225) according to odds posted Monday at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. In 2016, Truex had a tire issue that set him back prior to winning at Chicago and last season he had to overcome a speeding penalty.

Harvick won the first two races ever at Chicagoland (2001-02), but none since and was third last fall there. Kyle Busch won there in 2008 and has led at least 21 laps the past five years there which has helped give him 514 laps led all-time, second-most in track history. But enough about those two guys. It's like a broken record or groundhog day....every week, the same storyline. How about some other candidates to win Sunday?

Clint Bowyer has two wins on the season and got his last win on a downforce track at Michigan three weeks ago, albeit rain-shortened, but he still outdueled Harvick on the last restart when he had two new tires compared to Harvick's four fresh tires. He was 13th at Chicago last season in his first season as Harvick's teammate and his only top-five in 12 starts was fourth-place in 2010.

“Chicago has always been a cool racetrack," said Bowyer who is 20-to-1 to win Sunday. "It is a sister track to my home track in Kansas and that fan base up there is that Midwestern fan base I feel most comfortable with, and I enjoy going to that racetrack and interacting with them in the infield and everything else. Again, we are fortunate to be able to race all over the country and see different people in different ways of life.”

Denny Hamlin has finished sixth or better in his last four Chicago starts, which includes a 2015 win. He has top-five finishes in his past two races this season on 1.5s.

"I really like Chicagoland because you can run all the way from the wall to the inside apron there," said Hamlin who is 12-to-1 to win. "We’ll probably go back with the same notes and the same setup that we had last year and work from there, obviously with the hope of locking our spot in the 2018 Playoffs.” Hamlin is absolutely starving for a win in 2018.

Brad Keselowski won at Chicago in 2012 and 2014 and was fourth at Charlotte, the last race on a 1.5, and he's kind of in the same boat as Hamlin being just a notch below Harvick, Busch, and Truex.

Chevrolet hasn't won a race since the randomness of plate racing in the Daytona 500 way back in February. Kyle Larson led a race-high 101 laps before finishing fourth at Kansas and was seventh at Charlotte on May 27. He has an 8.2 average finish in four Chicago starts, fifth last season.

The pride of Chevrolet for almost two decades has been seven-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, but none of his 83 career wins have come at Chicagoland.

“After my first Cup Series win in 2003 at my home track in California, I made a promise to (No. 48 team crew chief) Chad (Knaus) that we would win at his home track in Chicago," Johnson said. "We have had a few opportunities and just haven’t been able to close the deal. I love the track. It’s a very fun 1.5-mile track. The asphalt is really porous at Chicagoland, so tire wear will be high. The track should be more racy with higher temperatures since we are racing there in July instead of September, so it should be a great show for the fans.”

Johnson is 30/1 to win, which is the largest odds placed at him at Chicagoland in his career. That's a span of 16 races where he's been favored to win in at least half of them just because it was a 1.5-mile track, the type that helped him with so many titles. While he didn't win, he still rolled strong with a 9.3 average finish that included second-place three times. He's also Chicago's all-time leader with 695 laps led.

There was promise that the Hendrick Motorsports program had found speed when Johnson finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, his best performance on any downforce track. His teammate Alex Bowman was ninth and Chase Elliott was ninth.

Elliott finished third at Chicagoland his rookie year in 2016 and was runner-up last season, but hasn't shown anything near that type of success in the new Camaro. With sagging attendance and TV rating, NASCAR needs this kid to start winning some races to build some excitement.

Ultimately, as much as I search for a new candidate to win, it still comes down to reality and the big 3 are still the big 3 until someone else shows consistent speed in their class.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/2)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/4)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
5) #42 Kyle Larson (8/1)

Welcome Junior!

We say goodbye to June this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, but we also say hello to another June in Sunday's broadcast of the Overton's 400. That is June-bug, the nickname of Dale Earnhardt Jr. who makes his debut as a full-time broadcaster in the Cup Series when NBC makes its season debut taking over the reins for Fox.

NASCAR and NBC are hoping Junior is just the ticket needed to boost TV ratings that saw 2017 decreases in 13 of 16 races while on Fox with Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip as the color commentators. Junior was voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver in his final season driving last year ending a run of 15 straight years winning the award. It's in that popularity with all his fans and his father's fans that should attract more to the tube.

Junior ended his career with only 26 Cup wins while driving full-time in the series since 2000. He never won a season championship, finishing a best of third-place in 2003, but there was an aura of NASCAR Royalty that always hovered above him. He's a likable good old boy and he's got all kinds of hilarious stories and a recent insight to the series and drivers that will make him bring some serious knowledge to our ears.

As far as how it relates to gambling and picking the winner this week, it doesn't. Although I will say that one of my favorite wins I had all-time in NASCAR was Junior winning the July race at Daytona in 2001, the first race at the track since it took his father's life. What I also remember is writing about how and why Junior would win for VegasInsider.com and scripting what would happen and it all played out perfectly and paid out at 15-to-1. I've have had bigger payouts, but none more exhilarating as that Daytona win. We get Daytona next week and I'm sure he'll offer plenty of memories of that particular 2001 race.

By the way, Earnahrdt Jr won at Chicagoland in 2005. Enjoy the broadcast!