Yep, you read that title right. The third year of NASCAR’s Chase elimination-style format kicks off under the watchful eye of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael. The show serves as the title sponsor this weekend at a track, Chicagoland Speedway, sometimes known more for its corporate support than the actual quality of racing itself. Who can forget the bouncing orange that fell onto the speedway during a Tropicana 400 weekend?
The 1.5-mile, cookie-cutter NASCAR oval will host the first race of the Chase’s first round. It’s the start of a 10-race playoff that whittles a field of 16 drivers to a “Final Four” that will duke it out in a winner-take-all title race in Homestead. The first round, composed of three races (Chicagoland, Loudon and Dover) will cut the field from 16 to 12 and creates an immediate sense of urgency among the playoff contenders. One mistake, one mechanical failure, like we saw with Jimmie Johnson at Dover last season, and even top seeds Brad Keselowski and Kyle Buschcan find themselves on the outside looking in.
The need for Chase success should push these playoff participants to the front of your roster. Just don’t forget about the other drivers showcasing momentum in recent weeks, like Kasey Kahne or even the entire Roush Fenway Racingteam. Just because the playoffs have begun doesn’t mean those guys stop racing for wins.
2016 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Chicagoland Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Denny Hamlin
It’s hard to keep momentum flowing under the current format when you clinch a playoff spot seven months early. That’s exactly what Hamlin did, winning this year’s Daytona 500 and then spending the rest of the regular season testing for a championship he so desperately covets.
Some experimentation left the No. 11 team off track much of the season, leaving them fourth (or fifth, if you count Martin Truex Jr.) on the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota train. But the past month in particular has seen Hamlin put it together at the right time. Richmond was his third victory of the season Saturday night, following Daytona and his first-ever road course win at Watkins Glen. A Virginia native, he always gets an extra boost winning in his hometown and the run served as his eighth straight top-10 finish.
Other JGR drivers appear to be trendier picks for a Chase title: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Truex at satellite Furniture Row Racing. But Hamlin has made it clear not to count him out.
Who’s at the Back: Brian Scott
The longtime XFINITY Series regular has found his transition into Sprint Cup more than he bargained for. Driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s “middle class” operations Scott has been driving the team straight to the poorhouse with five DNFs this season for wrecks. He’s crashed in two straight races, sparking a feud with Tony Stewart in the process, and hasn’t run inside the top 15 since Fontana back in March. No wonder RPM is switching personnel internally and you wonder if Scott’s crew chief Chris Heroy could be next on the list. It’s got to be tough for Heroy these days as is; former driver Kyle Larson is now tearing up the series just nine months after Heroy was let go from the No. 42 team.
Tragedy surrounds former NASCAR driver Robby Gordon this week. Gordon, who now runs his own SuperTruck Series, was dealing with the death of his dad and stepmother this week in what’s been reported to be a murder/suicide. Robert “Baja Bob” Gordon, 68, and Sharon, his 57-year-old wife, were found dead Wednesday at their southern California home. The incident remains under investigation but the Associated Press reports police think Robert Gordon strangled his wife before killing himself.
Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart will have separate discussions with NASCAR following their incident at Richmond last weekend. Newman, whose bid for the Chase ended in a wreck with Stewart, lashed out at his former boss. “I don’t think there was any reason other than him just being bipolar and having anger issues,” he said afterwards. “Google Tony Stewart; you’ll see all kinds of things he’s done. Look it up. YouTube and everything else. Quite the guy.”
Stewart, for his part, has been forgiving toward Newman in media interviews this week, claiming he “understood the pressure” his friend was under in trying to make the postseason field. Still, it was Stewart who retaliated after several incidents of on-track contact while battling for position and NASCAR wants to ensure both sides stay clean heading into the ten-race postseason.
Chase penaltieswere laid out this week in an attempt to clear the air should anyone run into problems over the season’s final stretch. Failing post-race laser inspection for the first time would strip a team of the benefits of a Chase victory and an automatic advancement into the next round of the playoff. It would cost them 35 driver and owner points, a three-race suspension for their crew chief and a $65,000 fine. Teams will also want to keep all the lugnuts on their tires during a pit stop; the same penalties will occur if a team is found to be missing one after the race.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Chip Ganassi Racing teams in the Chase for the first time in history. It caused Ganassi to call it “the greatest moment” in his racing career, a somewhat bizarre statement since Jamie McMurray is in the playoff despite not leading a single lap all season.
First-time Chasers, making up 25 percent of the 16-driver field. Rookies Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher make their playoff debut along with Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.
Drivers running Joe Gibbs Racing chassis to make the field. The entire four-car JGR organization is a part of the Chase for a second straight year along with their new satellite partner Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr.
Chevrolets in the Chase field, the most of any manufacturer. Toyota has five while Ford has only three.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvickwas king during Chicagoland Speedway’s early days. He captured the race’s inaugural edition in 2001, then followed it up with a second victory in ’02 despite starting 32nd and spinning halfway through the event. Don’t be fooled by his 42nd-place finish last year; Harvick started from the pole in that race and was felled by a flat tire caused by contact with Jimmie Johnson. Harvick, incensed after that, won’t be put in that same bad position twice.
Last week’s winner Denny Hamlinhas had a bit of a feast or famine relationship with Chicagoland. Four career top-10 finishes in 10 starts are balanced out by three results of 31st or worse; clearly, he’s a “start at your own risk” kind of guy here. But Hamlin, armed with the momentum above, won here last September and Joe Gibbs Racing enters this race with an exceptional resume on intermediates this season. I’d give the No. 11 team the edge, then over teammates Edwards, Busch, and Kenseth.
Kyle Larson, armed with three straight top-5 finishes, heads to Chicagoland Speedway in the best position of his young career. In a “nothing to lose” position inside his first Chase, this 1.5-mile oval is like a free gift for his arrival. Larson’s posted an average finish of 5.0 in just two starts here, led 22 laps and started no worse than 18th. It’s hard to see him running outside of the top 10 this weekend unless some sort of bad luck strikes.
Austin Dillonwill be lost this weekend among the talk of other top-tier Chase contenders. But remember his team, Richard Childress Racing, pushed Ryan Newmaninto the final four in 2014 on the back of consistency. Dillon could be a dark horse for that very reason and Chicagoland fits his style. Remember, he qualified fifth last year and was running well before a wreck left him dead last. I don’t see that happening again so he’s worth a try if you need a surprise play.
How about this one: Casey Mears. That name might shock you, as the No. 13 team has suffered through an awful season, but they showed some signs of life at Richmond. Mears has slowly improved with Germain Racing at Chicagoland, going from 36th, to 30th, to 26th, to 20th in his last four starts there. At a time where we often forget about those outside the Chase he could be a solid top-20 pick.
What Vegas Thinks
According to thespread.com, odds Friday morning have Kevin Harvick at +475 with Kyle Busch close behind at +600. Who’s got the worst odds of the 16 Chase contenders? Predictably, it’s underdog Chris Buescher,who has 250/1 odds to win the race.
What I Think
Armed with pit crew changes that really aided them at Richmond, I think Kevin Harvickis out to make a statement against the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. I think Harvick goes out there, dominates the race and punches an early ticket into the Chase’s next round.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)