By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
This will be his fourth attempt at crossing tracks off the list with his only failure thus far coming at Michigan where he finished sixth. Michigan is the only track on the schedule he hasn’t won at that races twice a year, but not winning at Chicagoland is the track that is puzzling just because of how dominating he has been throughout his career on the cookie-cutter type of tracks.
There have been four races run on the 1.5-mile tracks. While Las Vegas, Atlanta, Texas, and Charlotte all run much faster because of the banking being steeper, they all still require similar set-ups. For Johnson, there has been no better type of tracks over his career than these and they’re almost entirely responsible for his reign as defending four-time Cup champion.
Following Friday’s practice sessions where Johnson looked the strongest, he’s looks like the driver to beat Saturday night. The Lowe’s team brought a brand new chassis and crew chief Chad Knaus had this car dialed in for race conditions right off the hauler. Johnson had the fifth fastest lap during the first -- and most important -- session, but what was most impressive is that he had the top average speeds among all drivers that ran at least 50 laps. Johnson also led the day with the best consecutive 10-lap average time.
Johnson is definitely looking like the driver to beat this week and if crossing off races on his bucket list isn’t enough motivation to race such a great car into victory lane, then making the moment last forever by winning his first race as a father should be.
Johnson’s wife Chandra gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Wednesday, a day Johnson called “the absolute best day of my life.” Johnson flew home following Friday’s qualifying to be home with his family and will return in time for the start of Saturday’s race.
It may seen like too much of fairy tale type of scenario for Johnson to win a race at such a monumental point in his life, but the reality is that Johnson has done so many amazing things in his career that have never been seen -- such as winning four straight titles -- that winning at Chicagoland for the first time ever, in a stout car, on the type of tracks he loves, that happens immediately after he becomes a father, wouldn’t be that tall of a tale to believe will happen.
Tony Stewart is a two-time winner at Chicago and has brought a chassis that performed the best on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Stewart’s only top-10 finish on the four tracks was at Las Vegas with a seventh-place finish in February. Stewart was second behind Johnson is best 10-lap average speeds during the first practice session.
The first session on Friday should be looked at in the same way we normally view happy hour. Because the race is being run Saturday night, the teams had to cram everything into Friday’s schedule which began with two practices and culminatied with qualifying. The first practice session was used exclusively in race trim by the drivers that plan on racing the entire race. The second session was geared more towards qualifying set-up which nearly make it irrelevant when dissecting all the data for this race.
The last 1.5-mile race was held at Charlotte in late May and is a good recent reference to assist in handicapping Saturday’s race. Of the four races run on these type of tracks, Las Vegas may be the best read of them all just because the banking is less than Charlotte, Atlanta, and Texas.
Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick are the only two drivers to have finished within the top-12 of all four 1.5-mile tracks. Neither gained a win in the four races, but it shows just how consistent they have been throughout and gives an indication that they’ll be just as good this week. Harvick won the first two races ever raced at Chicago while Kahne was fast overall in average speeds during the first practice Friday. Kahne also finished third in this race last year.
McMurray has been a hard one to figure out this season. He‘s either been really good or terribly cursed. This week, he’s brought the same chassis that was runner-up at Darlington starting fro the pole. He starts from the pole again this week and in his last start on a 1.5-mile track -- at Charlotte -- he was runner-up as well.
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