|Hamlin ready to Chase a Championship (Getty)|
Busch may not be one of the 12 drivers running for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title that begins this week, but he can still try to salvage something with hopes of carrying momentum into next year. The best sign of all that Busch, who won at Chicago in 2008, may be a contender this week beyond his fast single lap time is that he had the second fastest 10-consecutive lap average.
Aric Almirola was second fastest in the final 90-minute session followed by 2009 Chicago winner Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Chase leader Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin has all the signs of looking like a winner this week and his stellar practices emphasize the point even more. He’s finished third or better with two wins at the past four 1.5-mile tracks and during Friday’s practices, he finished within the top-5 of both sessions. He was also fourth or better in the 10-consecutive lap category during both sessions.
Martin Truex Jr. was fastest in the first 90-minute session, but fell to 25th fastest in the final session. Truex Jr. should be considered one of the top candidates to win this week just because of all his success in 1.5-mile tracks this season. At Kansas in April, probably the track most similar to Chicagoland, he finished runner-up in a race he thoroughly dominated.
Kasey Kahne was sixth fastest in the final session and had the top 10-consecutive lap average among the 24 drivers that attempted at least 10 straight laps. Kahne’s best performances on 1.5-tracks this season was a win at Charlotte and runner-up at Kentucky. The car he's using this week is the same one he won with at Charlotte.
Dale Earnhardt Jr struggled in the final session with the 31st fastest lap, but was second fastest in the first session while running in qualifying trim. Don‘t put too much into Junior’s final times because he was fast with average speeds, fifth fastest in 10-consecutive lap average. He's been good on these type of tracks all season and is the only driver to finish 10th or better on all six 1.5-mile tracks.
The other Hendrick drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, finished seventh and 10th respectively during the final session. Gordon is carrying a lot of momentum into this race and has a an average finish of 10th at Chicago including a 2006 win. Chicago remains one of the few tracks Johnson has never won at, but has performed well with a couple runner-up finishes. Johnson comes into this race with a chassis that has never lost. Two starts and two wins.
Tony Stewart is a three-time Chicago winner with the best average finish position (8.7) in track history. He has struggled on the 1.5-mile tracks since winning at Las Vegas in March, but showed some speed in both practices, being 12th quickest in the first session and 14th fastest in the final session.
Despite what we may perceive to be struggling with Stewart, he is one driver on the tour that poor practice times, or running poorly on a type of track, have to be taken with a grain of salt. He proved that last season when he didn’t win any of the first 26 races, and then won five in the final 10 which catapulted him to his third championship. Chicago is where he got it all started last season with a win. This week, he's in a brand new car that saw it's first track time on Friday.
Brad Keselowski had the 16th fastest lap in the final session and was third fastest in the earlier practice. He’s finished fifth or better at his last three 1.5-mile tracks, including a win at Kentucky in June.
Based on Friday’s practices, mixed in with other variables consisting of past history and performances on similar tracks, the top candidates to win Sunday look to be Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr and Kyle Busch.
Chicago Practice 1
Chicago Practice 2