Monday, July 6, 2009

Chicago Preview: 400

by Micah Roberts

After eighteen races thus far into the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup series, there have been eleven different winners. Last season, for entire thirty-six race schedule, only twelve drivers made it to victory lane. Of the drivers currently in the top-12 after two races in the Race to the Chase, five of them have not won yet.

Some of the top names in NASCAR like Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle have yet to win this season despite running well enough to be deeply entrenched in the top-12. The three drivers combined to win twelve race last season led by Edwards nine wins alone.

Edwards lack of horsepower this season, at least the kind close to what he had last season, is a mystery thus far. The entire Roush-Fenway organization has struggled to get close to winning ever since Matt Kenseth won the first two races of 2009. In Edwards case, other than horsepower, the only other major change is that he that he got married in January.

Coming into this weeks race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, IL, things don’t look to get any better for Edwards and the rest of the Roush-Fenway team. Despite it being a 1.5 mile medium banked tri-oval, a type of track typically well suited for the Roush set-up in the past, they haven’t been able to win on the track in the eight seasons the race has been run.

Usually we have a basis, or like-track analysis we can compare from one track to another, but
Chicago’s facility stands alone and doesn’t correlate with any other track trends. The 1.5 mile layout is identical to Texas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Kansas from the naked eye above, but the degree in banking at 18 degrees makes it completely different. While Kansas would be the closest in banking, there is no solid correlation between the two regarding drivers in the same season.

Last seasons winner, Kyle Busch, will be one of the favorites again this week. Last week in Daytona he got beat up pretty badly on the last lap while trying to hold off Tony Stewart for the win. Busch not only didn’t get the win, but the Daytona wall, Kasey Kahne, and Joey Logano all violently crashed into Busch. He was able to walk away without injury, but he was a bit wobbly and shaken.

A lot has changed from this season to last when Busch dominated at Chicago. After nineteen races, Busch was leading in points and had seven wins and had twelve top-5 finishes. This season Busch has three wins, but has only one other top-5 finish. His Daytona run and gamble with a late block attempt on Stewart is a perfect example of what is costing Busch in his all out mentality. That kamikaze all out style is also what got Busch into trouble as the Chase started last season and cost him a possible title.

Tony Stewart extended his points lead by 180 points over Jeff Gordon with his second victory of the season last week at Daytona. He leads everyone in the series with twelve top-5 finishes and has now made believers out of everyone that not only can he contend, but he is becoming the driver to beat every week on all tracks.

We have gone through the first wave of the season and seen just about every type of track and if Stewart’s team is that good the first time out with his new team, how good will he be when they start visiting tracks for the second time. In his first attempt at seeing a track for the second time this season last week, Stewart got the win and pretty much dominated in doing so.

Stewart has the luxury of also being one of two drivers to win multiple races at Chicago with the last being in 2007. In eight career starts at Chicago, Stewart has six top-5 finishes. Couple his history on the track with the current state of the teams’ operation and it’s easy to see why Stewart is the favorite to win this week.

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have any wins in Chicago, one of the few non-road course tracks that he has yet to win on. However, Johnson does have five top-5 finishes in his seven career starts and is third all time at Chicago with an average finish of 8.1. Johnson has crept closer and closer to passing teammate Jeff Gordon for second in points and sits only 194 points from Stewart at the top.

Johnson is just a machine! The defending three-time NASCAR Cup Champion has just been hanging around, running well, and being very business like week after week taking only what the car will give him and no more. What is truly amazing about Johnson is that he could be looking at going for six straight titles this season because he could have easily won the two previous years before stating his record breaking streak of titles.

Looking at a comparison in styles just between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson and you could use football as an analogy. Busch is the high flying offense that scores lots of points, but allows lots of points scored en route to a 9-7 season. Johnson uses a solid defense to set the foundation and tone for every game plan and uses it to go 12-4 each year.

Kurt Busch is only 304 points out of first and sits fourth in the standings. The elder Busch is running a smart season and has compiled quality finishes all year. He had only one race where his car was the best on the track in Atlanta, and all the others he’s just been smart and looking at the broader picture. If there is one thing that can get Kyle Busch motivated, it’s seeing his brother do better than him each week.

Matt Kenseth leads NASCAR’s loop data for the last four seasons of races at Chicago. Helping his rating is his two second place finishes over that time span. Those two second places finishes are Kenseth’s only top-5 finishes at the track in his eight career starts. Kenseth only has two other top-10 finishes at Chicago, but has still averaged a finish of 9.8 over his career. Look for Kenseth to continue the trend and get himself another quality Chicago finish.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
2) #14 Tony Stewart (6/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
4) #2 Kurt Busch (15/1)
5) #17 Matt Kenseth (15/1)

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