|Denny Hamlin is 6-to-1 to win NASCAR Sprint Cup title (Getty)|
When I look at the NASCAR Chase odds and see Jimmie Johnson as the 5-to-2 favorite, my first thought is, “Yes, he’s a five-time champion with 20 wins in 80 Chase starts, he should be the favorite.” But after that brief moment, reality sets in that those 20 wins from the past mean nothing now. He wasn’t a factor in last years Chase and it’s probable that he won’t be in this years, either.
The 2012 Chase is as wide open as ever. There is no doubt that Johnson has one of the best teams in NASCAR. They have the top crew chief, pit-crew, engine builders and entire organization surrounding him that make him the most respected driver coming into the Chase. Those five championship trophies carry a lot weight and are intimidating to some of the other upstarts that are trying to regain or make their mark in the sport.
Most everyone will agree that the key to wining the Chase is doing well on the type of track that there are more of. Of the 10 Chase races, five of them are on 1.5-mile tracks. When Johnson won his championships, there was no one better on those type of tracks. Last season, we started to see a demise in the first 26 races where his only win was at Talladega and it carried over into the Chase. Sure, he won at Kansas during the Chase last year, but it was Tony Stewart who won three of the five 1.5-mile races and five overall to win the championship.
This year we have the same type of thing with Johnson. Of the six 1.5-mile tracks run at this season, Johnson has failed to win at any of them. He finished runner-up at Las Vegas and Texas early on, third at Kansas, but then dipped to 11th at Charlotte and sixth at Kentucky. Three weeks ago at Atlanta he was involved in a wreck and finished 34th. He’s progressively getting worse at these tracks at the wrong time of the year. This is go-time and his team doesn’t appear to be the second or third best on these type of tracks, which kind of makes you wonder how he’s the favorite.
The biggest question is why Denny Hamlin isn’t favored.
Hamlin is the only driver this season to capture two wins on the 1.5-mile tracks this season and he’s done so recently. In the past four races on 1.5-mile tracks, Hamlin has finished third or better. He has more wins (4) overall than anyone this year and he comes in as one of the hottest drivers on tour.
So we’ve established that Hamlin is the best on the recent 1.5-mile tracks, and we expect him to continue the run through the five races, but what about the rest? Well, he’s one of the absolute best on flat tracks and he’ll have New Hampshire and Phoenix to show off his skills during the Chase. At New Hampshire he has an 8.5 average finish, the best among all drivers, that includes a 2007 win. At Phoenix his average finish is 10.9 that includes a win this year.
Then we have his favorite track on the circuit at Martinsville where the native Virginian has won four times over his career. We should expect a top-5 finish there considering he’s averaged a finish of 6.4 over 14 career starts.
The only wild cards for him during the Chase are Dover and Talladega. He’s got eight of the 10 races in the bag on paper and if he can finish 12th or better on the two wild card tracks for him, he’ll be hoisting the trophy in Miami.
I also love the angle of crew chief Darian Grubb taking Hamlin to the next level. For some strange reason, Grubb was let go by Tony Stewart following a championship season. The crew chief change on Stewart’s car was done behind the scenes before the Chase started last season, but Grubb put five winning cars together during the Chase and got it done. He’s now Hamlin’s crew chief and his expertise on the 1.5-mile tracks is what is making a champion. Before Stewart, Grubb was also the car chief under Chad Knaus for Johnson during those dominant years on the 1.5-mile tracks.
It all begins this week in Chicago, the first of five 1.5-mile tracks, and Hamlin should be considered the favorite to win because of his recent excellence. I like to group Chicago with Kansas and Kentucky because of similar banking. They all run differently, but the set-ups required are similar. Hamlin won at Kansas in April and was third at Kentucky in June.
Other drivers expected to run well this week include Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
I've altered my thoughts on Tony Stewart this week. He has the best average finish (8.7) at Chicago since the track opened in 2001, and has won three times there -- including last season, but he hasn't done a thing on thing 1.5-mile tracks since winning at las Vegas in March. Oh yeah, he also doesn't have Darian Grubb to set his cars up.
Top-5 Chicago Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
2) #56 Martin Truex Jr. (20/1)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
5) #17 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
Video: Roberts on The Linemakers Talking Chase Odds