NASCAR picks pack: Chasers should start strong as playoffs kick off

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: Sept. 16, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 2:16 p.m. ET

WHERE: Chicagoland Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 1.5-mile "cookie-cutter" track

BROADCAST: ABC | RACE LENGTH: 267 laps, 400 miles

The lowdown

Week one: A new beginning. The clock is reset for the top 12 in points and last week's battle for the wild card will be difficult to beat in terms of pure drama. The pressure to win this week is not as great for the Chase contenders as it would be for teams in other professional sports. The playoffs in NASCAR is more akin to a 10-inning game spread over 10 days and giving up a few points this week will not completely derail a driver's effort to win the championship. It does pay to get off to a strong start, however.

Tony Stewart kicked off his championship campaign last year by winning the Geico 400 at Chicagoland and finished second at New Hampshire en route to the top spot in 2005. Kurt Busch won at New Hampshire in his championship season of 2004 and Jimmie Johnson has regularly gotten off to a strong start with three top-six starts during his championship seasons.

For that matter, week one has traditionally been the kind to the majority of Chase contenders. On average, Chase drivers have recorded a finish of 13.8 in 80 previous races and have beaten that mark in the first week of competition in six of eight seasons. Until last year, all of these kickoff races came at New Hampshire, but last year was one of the most productive ever for the top 12 in points when the series moved to Chicago. In the Geico 400, Chase contenders swept the top five and only two non-Chasers managed to finish inside the top 10. The average finish for Chase contenders that afternoon was 11.4. New Hampshire was moved into Week 2, but that track continued to be kind to Chasers with an average finish of 12.9, so while predicting the winner of a NASCAR race continues to be extremely difficult, it is a fair bet that Chase contenders will be leading the way.

10 best drivers at Chicagoland

Over the past three races at Chicagoland, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Tony Stewart
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 4.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 8.73 in 11 attempts

Many have said over the past several years that the Chase was tailor-made for Jimmie Johnson, but once NASCAR dropped Auto Club out of the final 10 races and replaced it with Chicagoland, the balance of power shifted. This is one of Stewart's best tracks and he has a better career average finish at only Watkins Glen and Indy. In 11 attempts, he has been close to perfect with three victories, eight top fives, and a ninth-place finish. He is not completely immune to trouble because he crashed out of the inaugural race and experienced problems again in 2006, but if he keeps his nose clean Sunday, he will get off to a strong start in his bid to defend the 2011 championship.

2. Clint Bowyer
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 6.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 10.17 in 6 attempts

Along with Stewart and Carl Edwards, Bowyer is one of only three drivers who enters the weekend with back-to-back top 10s at Chicago. In fact, he has three consecutive top 10s dating back to the 2009 LifeLock.com 400, but the news is not uniformly good. The No. 15 team has struggled on "cookie-cutter" courses this season with only one top 10 in six starts and that came all the way back in April at Las Vegas. There has never been a better time to reverse that trend, however, since last week's fuel-mileage gamble at Richmond paid off in a victory. Still, he is far from a sure thing despite having the second-best three-year average at Chicago.

2. Carl Edwards
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 6.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 16.29 in 7 attempts

Edwards has the best opportunity among the non-Chase contenders to finish among the top five and steal their thunder. He enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives in Chicago's past two races and he has been uniformly good on the similarly configured 1.5-mile tracks for most of the past two years. From last year's Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas through this year's edition of that same race, he earned 10 top-fives in 11 starts. He added three more top-10s in the next three races until the team realized that the only way to make the Chase would be to start gambling. A blown engine at Atlanta two weeks ago sealed his fate, but now that the pressure is off this team's shoulders, they should run with the leaders once more.

4. Kasey Kahne
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 7.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 21.00 in 8 attempts

Kahne got off to a slow start at Chicago with a best result of 23rd in his first four attempts. He turned a corner in 2008, the first year this race was run under the lights, and it appeared he would like those cooler conditions much better. Kahne finished 15th in that event and swept the top 10 in his next two tries. Last year the Geico 400 was moved back into daylight hours and Kahne kept the streak alive with a 12th-place finish. Having taken one of the wild cards to get into the Chase, he is seeded 11th, but no one expects him to stay there for long.

5. Mark Martin
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 8.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 12.45 in 11 attempts

Martin has been consistent at Chicago during his career with top-20 finishes in all but one of his starts, but he failed to crack the top five until 2009. That race did not get off to a great start because he qualified 14th, but he picked his way to the front and won. The cookie-cutter courses have not been particularly kind to him this year. He finished 18th at Vegas and blew engines in back-to-back events on this track type at Kansas and Charlotte, and that makes one wonder if the No. 55 is being conscripted into the role of Research and Development. When the power plant holds up, however, Martin is capable of finishing in the top 10 with a third at Texas and a 10th at Atlanta.

6. Jeff Gordon
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 9.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 10.00 in 11 attempts

Two things had to happen last week for Gordon to earn the final wild-card berth. He had to finish strong and Kyle Busch needed to stumble on a track where he has been practically perfect. We predicted that Busch would finish with the leaders and deny the No. 24 his opportunity. For the first half of the race, that appeared to be the case. An hour-long rain delay just before the halfway mark of the race gave teams a chance to work on the setups; Gordon hit on the right formula, Busch lost the handle, and at the checkered flag only three points separated the two drivers -- with Gordon on the right side of the equation. The No. 24 has an opportunity to climb out of the basement this week if it can run like it did at Chicagoland in 2009 and 2010 with second- and third-place results.

7. Ryan Newman
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 12.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 15.90 in 10 attempts

Newman came out of the gates strong at Chicago with a fifth-place finish in his first attempt and a victory as a sophomore. His next three attempts were abysmal with sub-25th-place results and an average of 33rd. Recently he has found the middle ground and scored four top-10s in his last five attempts without cracking the top five. This is an important week for Newman. He missed the Chase for the second time in three years and needs to run strong in order to attract sponsorship for 2013. That could be a tall order because his recent efforts on cookie-cutter tracks have been less than impressive with only one top 10 and an average finish of 21.3 in six races this season.

8. Juan Pablo Montoya
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 12.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 15.90 in 10 attempts

Montoya is in the top 10 this week based on consistency. In five starts on this track, his worst result was an 18th in 2008, but he also has a top 10 scored the following year. His recent performances on the combined cookie-cutter courses have also been consistent, but they lack the occasional surge of strength. Montoya finished third in last year's Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas, but he has failed to crack the top 10 since. Still, in that span of 15 races he has finished outside the top 20 only three times, so the smart money this week says Montoya will finish somewhere in the teens.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 13.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 14.82 in 11 attempts

After such a great start to the year, Earnhardt's efforts in the second half of the regular season trended toward the top 15 instead of the top 10. The road course races at Watkins Glen and Infineon broke his momentum and there was the little matter of a transmission problem at Pocono. In the past eight oval events when he was incident-free, Kentucky through Richmond, he finished outside the top 10 three times. That is not horrible, but to challenge for the championship he needs to finish better in the final 10 races. Chicagoland should give him the opportunity to get off to a strong start because in six attempts on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this year, he has swept the top 10.

10. Jimmie Johnson
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 14.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 10.00 in 10 attempts

It is hard to criticize the five-time champ. If anyone knows what needs to happen in the next 10 races, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus certainly do. But this is one team that desperately needs a strong run at Chicago. Since leaving Watkins Glen, they have struggled to maintain any semblance of momentum. A blown engine at Michigan and crash at Atlanta were explainable, but last week the No. 48 simply missed the setup in the closing laps. This team has traditionally been one of the best at making an optimal final adjustment, so the Federated Auto Parts 400 should be particularly troubling to Johnson's fans.

OTHERS OF NOTE

11. Denny Hamlin
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 14.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 19.17 in 6 attempts

Hamlin entered the Federated Auto Parts 400 with back-to-back victories and a strong shot at winning a third. He dominated much of the race, but was derailed by rain late in the event when the team chose the wrong strategy. Once it became apparent the No. 11 would not win, it was a simple decision to finish behind teammate Busch and give that driver one extra point that he might have needed to qualify for the Chase. Momentum has been lost under less dramatic circumstances, but Hamlin truly feels he is the favorite to win the championship. This week is his chance to prove it because he has two top-10s in his latest three starts at Chicago.

12. Martin Truex Jr.
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 15.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 18.17 in 6 attempts

Truex is not one of the names getting bandied about as a potential Sprint Cup winner and that is probably fair; however, he could be one of the most pleasant surprises of the Chase. Teammate Bowyer was in a similar situation in 2007 when he made his first Chase, but he challenged the leaders until week eight by sweeping the top 12 and he scored a victory in the opening race. Truex also made his Chase debut that same year and finished fifth in the first event, but he quickly fell out of contention. This year should be different for both, because Michael Waltrip Racing has been one of the most consistent organizations in the field.

16. Kevin Harvick
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 18.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 10.36 in 11 attempts

Now is the time to find out if a recent crew-chief swap is going to work. Several weeks ago, Shane Wilson was demoted and Gil Martin replaced him atop the pit box for the No. 29 and no one expected immediate results. What they hoped for instead was that this team would hit its stride in time to make a bid for the championship. Harvick has been involved in five previous Chases and he has come close in four of those contests with a third- or fourth-place position in the final standings. He enters the weekend with back-to-back top-10s at Atlanta and Richmond, but to take the top spot this year he is going to have to find his way into Victory Lane and that has eluded this team all year.

16. Brad Keselowski
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 18.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 18.33 in 3 attempts

Keselowski has momentum on his side regardless of whether one values his recent record or how he has run on cookie-cutter courses. With the exception of a crash-induced 30th at Bristol three weeks ago, he has swept the top 10 in the past 10 races. He kicked that streak off with a victory on similarly configured Kentucky Speedway, which is part of a three-race top-five streak on similar 1.5-mile tracks. Chicago has not been particularly kind to him during his career, but he defied the odds last year and finished fifth. No matter how one looks at the numbers, he has to be one of this week's favorites.

19. Matt Kenseth
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 19.00 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 12.27 in 11 attempts

Kenseth could be in a little trouble this week. Five of his past seven oval attempts ended outside the top 10 and most of those were worse than 15th. His past three attempts at Chicago were equally disappointing, but the driver will choose to focus on two previous races instead. Kenseth has not won on this track, but he posted second-place results in 2005 and 2007. He will also take some consolation from the two most recent races this season since he finished ninth on another cookie-cutter course in Atlanta and was fifth last week at Richmond.

27. Greg Biffle
Last three races average finish at Chicagoland: 30.67 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Chicagoland: 18.78 in 9 attempts

To get where he is in the Chase, Biffle has had to defy the odds on a number of occasions this year. He is going to need to do that again this week if he wants to maintain his position in the standings because Chicagoland has not been overly kind during his career. Biffle has only one top-10 on this track and that came under the lights four years ago. He has come close on three other occasions with 11th-place results from 2005 through 2007, but his last three efforts all ended outside the top 25.

All Drivers: Last six races at Chicagoland
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Tony Stewart 4.67 (3) 20. Marcos Ambrose 19.33 (3)
2. Clint Bowyer 6.67 (3) 21. Jeff Burton 19.67 (3)
2. Carl Edwards 6.67 (3) 22. Jamie McMurray 21.67 (3)
4. Kasey Kahne 7.00 (3) 22. Paul Menard 21.67 (3)
5.Mark Martin 8.33 (3) 24. Kyle Busch 24.00 (3)
6. Jeff Gordon 9.67 (3) 25. Reed Sorenson 25.50 (2)
7. Ryan Newman 12.00 (3) 26. Bobby Labonte 29.00 (3)
8. Juan Pablo Montoya 13.33 (3) 27. Greg Biffle 30.67 (3)
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 13.67 (3) 28. Sam Hornish Jr. 31.00 (2)
10. Jimmie Johnson 14.33 (3) 29. Casey Mears 32.33 (2)
11. Denny Hamlin 14.67 (3) 30. Scott Speed 33.67 (3)
12. Martin Truex Jr. 15.00 (3) 31. David Stremme 34.33 (3)
13. David Ragan 16.00 (3) 32. Landon Cassill 34.50 (2)
14. Kurt Busch 16.33 (3) 33. Mike Bliss 35.33 (3)
15. Joey Logano 17.67 (3) 34. David Gilliland 36.67 (3)
16. Kevin Harvick 18.33 (3) 35. Travis Kvapil 37.50 (2)
16. Brad Keselowski 18.33 (3) 36. JJ Yeley 40.00 (2)
18. Regan Smith 18.50 (2) 37. Dave Blaney 40.33 (3)
19. Matt Kenseth 19.00 (3) 38. Joe Nemechek 41.33 (3)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 10 (2005 USG Sheetrock 400, 2001 Tropicana 400)

Fewest caution flags: 4 (2010 LifeLock.com 400)

Average number of caution flags per race: 7.6

Final Caution, last five races:
September 2011: Lap 217 of 267 - Debris.
July 2010: Lap 180 of 267 – 2-car accident in turn 4 (Robby Gordon, Bill Elliott).
July 2009: Lap 265 of 267 – Fluid on track.
July 2008: Lap 263 of 267 – Oil on track.
July 2007: Lap 253 of 267 – 1-car spin (Joe Nemechek).

Most caution laps: 56 (2001 Tropicana 400)

Fewest caution laps: 21 (2010 LifeLock.com 400)

Average number of caution laps per race: 35.6

Leading the way

Most leaders: 13 (2004 Tropicana 400)

Fewest leaders: 6 (2009 LifeLock.com 400)

Average number of leaders: 9.5

Most lead changes: 22 (2011 Geico 400)

Fewest lead changes: 10 (2010 LifeLock.com 400, 2009 LifeLock.com 400)

Average number of lead changes: 16.3

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Chicagoland (starting position):
September 2011: Tony Stewart (26th)
July 2010: David Reutimann (7th)
July 2009: Mark Martin (14th)
July 2008: Kyle Busch (1st)
July 2007: Tony Stewart (19th)

Worst starting position for race winner: 32nd – Kevin Harvick (July 2002)

A race at Chicagoland has been won by the pole sitter only 1 time and from the front row 1 time in 11 races.

Active winners at Chicagoland

Tony Stewart (3)
Kevin Harvick (2)
Ryan Newman (1)
Mark Martin (1)
Kyle Busch (1)
Jeff Gordon (1)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)

First time winners at Chicagoland

None, but David Reutimann and Kevin Harvick each earned their second career Cup wins at Chicagoland in 2010 and 2001 respectively.

"Cookie-cutter" tracks (since 2009)

There are seven tracks commonly referred to as cookie-cutter courses. Chicagoland, Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky are certainly not identical, but similar enough that success on one is a good indication of how a driver will run on all three. The following chart represents how the active racers have fared on all seven tracks as a combined average and the next three cookie-cutter courses specifically.

DriverCombined Avg.Combined AttemptsChicagolandCharlotteKansas
Matt Kenseth 10.56 34 19.00 7.57 12.00
Tony Stewart 11.79 34 4.67 16.86 8.20
Kevin Harvick 12.18 34 18.33 13.29 10.00
Denny Hamlin 12.18 34 14.67 13.71 7.40
Jimmie Johnson 12.21 34 14.33 18.14 4.40
Jeff Gordon 12.38 34 9.67 13.57 13.20
Kasey Kahne 13.09 34 7.00 12.43 13.40
Carl Edwards 13.24 34 6.67 14.14 7.00
Greg Biffle 13.68 34 30.67 15.00 5.40
Kyle Busch 14.03 34 24.00 8.00 13.20
Kurt Busch 15.12 34 16.33 17.00 12.60
Ryan Newman 15.97 34 12.00 16.14 16.80
Clint Bowyer 16.03 34 6.67 16.86 19.40
Dale Earnhardt Jr 16.35 34 13.67 23.00 16.20
Mark Martin 17.06 33 8.33 22.43 17.00
Martin Truex Jr 17.62 34 15.00 18.71 18.80
Juan Pablo Montoya 18.21 34 13.33 19.71 17.00
Marcos Ambrose 18.41 34 19.33 20.43 19.80
Jeff Burton 18.59 34 19.67 20.29 21.80
Paul Menard 18.88 34 21.67 21.29 17.40
Brad Keselowski 18.97 31 18.33 16.50 10.20
Joey Logano 19.06 34 17.67 10.29 22.40
David Reutimann 19.67 33 15.00 15.71 25.80
Trevor Bayne 20.20 10 - 27.50 -
David Ragan 21.62 34 16.00 18.00 22.80
Jamie McMurray 21.94 34 21.67 20.29 21.40
Regan Smith 23.17 29 18.50 16.40 24.50
Sam Hornish Jr 26.35 20 31.00 28.25 24.33
Casey Mears 27.82 33 32.33 27.29 28.80
Bobby Labonte 28.21 34 29.00 25.29 35.40
Aric Almirola 28.67 12 - 16.00 -
Danica Patrick 29.50 2 - 30.00 -
Scott Speed 29.59 27 33.67 29.50 26.33
David Gilliland 30.26 34 36.67 28.71 33.60
Landon Cassill 31.38 21 34.50 30.75 32.25
Reed Sorenson 31.50 20 25.50 29.50 30.50
Travis Kvapil 33.11 28 37.50 33.33 29.75
David Stremme 33.33 25 34.33 34.33 35.50
Dave Blaney 36.47 35 40.33 35.86 34.20
Mike Bliss 38.21 29 35.33 37.71 39.00
JJ Yeley 39.09 23 40.00 38.50 38.50
TJ Bell 39.60 6 - 38.00 -
Michael McDowell 40.68 29 43.50 39.83 41.00
Joe Nemechek 41.24 34 41.33 41.14 42.20
Josh Wise 42.18 11 - 44.50 42.00
Scott Riggs 44.13 15 - 44.33 42.50

Beaver's Best Bets for Chicagoland

Winner: Denny Hamlin. He would not have given up the victory at Richmond to help his teammate make the Chase, but Hamlin did not have much to lose by dropping outside the top 15 when it was apparent he could not win. This week, he needs to establish dominance for the Chase.

Dark horse top 10: Carl Edwards. There is a lot of pride on the line and for the drivers outside the top 12 in points, the only salve for their wounded pride is a trip to Victory Lane.

Don't bet on it: Greg Biffle. We've been wrong about Biffle in the past, but his recent Chicagoland record is simply too bad to suggest he will finish inside the top 10.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

With only one race per year, it is difficult for drivers to create and maintain streaks at Chicagoland. For that reason, a deeper look at how they have run on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks combined is in order and this week's top-10 is filled with “cookie-cutter” kings.

1. Denny Hamlin
2. Tony Stewart
3. Matt Kenseth
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Kasey Kahne
6. Kevin Harvick
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
8. Carl Edwards
9. Kyle Busch
10. Martin Truex Jr.

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

Rain and fuel strategies played a huge part in how drivers finished this week, so all things considered, picking five of the top 10 was not too bad.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1. Kyle Busch 16 -1
2. Denny Hamlin 18 -1
3. Jimmie Johnson 13 -1
4. Kevin Harvick 10 5
5. Jeff Gordon 2 5
6. Clint Bowyer 1 5
7. Carl Edwards 17 -1
8. Paul Menard 23 -1
9. Mark Martin 3 5
10. Ryan Newman 8 5

Total points for Richmond = 20 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 22.1 points (16 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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