|Struggles? So what, he's Jimmie Johnson and it's "go time"|
It doesn’t matter that Johnson is currently on the worst stretch of finishes in his career or that he’s never won at Chicago, one of only five Cup tracks that make that claim. It also doesn’t matter that Johnson hasn’t won on a 1.5- or 2-mile track this season, the type that he had won on at least once a year during his career and the type that helped him win five championships.
No, Jimmie Johnson is an entirely different breed of driver still in his prime with perhaps the best crew chief and pit crew in the series. Had we rattled off all those attributes towards a different driver -- any driver -- it would be a completely different story. But it is Johnson we are discussing, and his dominance during his career affords him several mulligans, even if they have all come in a row at probably the worst time of the season for him.
Despite those poor finishes lately and only having one top-five finish on layouts similar to Chicago -- the type that five of the Chase races consist of -- Johnson’s team still ended the first 26 races with the most points simply because of being more consistent than everyone else. If there is one team that should be able to flip the switch and say “it’s go time” and really be able to do it, it would be the No. 48 squad.
Only six races have been run on 1.5-mile tracks this season, and the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have won five of them. Both come into the Chase at 7-to-2 odds, second behind Johnson. After those two, there is a major gap all the way down to Kasey Kahne at 10-to-1 as the fourth choice to win. For Kenseth, it would be his second Cup title; Busch has never won.
As for Chicago odds, Kenseth falls in line at 6-to-1 behind Johnson with Busch at 7-to-1. Kenseth has never won at Chicago, but has been runner-up twice. He comes into the Chase with a three-point lead in the standings on the basis of his series-leading five wins this season, two more than Johnson and Busch. Kenseth has won three times on the 1.5-mile tracks this season, the last victory coming at Kentucky on June 30.
Kyle Busch won at Chicago in 2008 and was fourth last season. He has wins on similar tracks at Texas and Atlanta, as well as the 2-mile layout at Fontana. His win at Atlanta on Sept. 1 might be the most telling for this week because it’s the most recent, and also because it's in the aftermath of several engine package changes that JGR had been trying. All appears well in the engine department and Busch looks to be the most likely candidate to walk away with the big trophy at the season finale at Homestead because of how well he runs on every type of track. His biggest nemesis on the track will be himself.
Brad Keselowski (15-1) won’t be able to defend his 2012 title this season, but he’s still a driver who should be taken notice of this week because he won at Chicago last season. On the same note, his teammate, Joey Logano (15-1), deserves serious consideration to win on Sunday. On the last two big-horsepower tracks, at Michigan on Aug. 18 and at Atlanta on Sept. 1, Logano has come home with a win and second-place finish. He’s 20-to-1 to win the Chase, and it may seem like his chances to win it all are slim, but we all said the same thing about Keselowski last season until he kicked off the Chase with a win at Chicago.
Like Logano, Kevin Harvick has also showed some strength on these types of tracks lately. Since winning the May 26 race in Charlotte, he’s finished second twice at Michigan, 10th at Kentucky and ninth at Atlanta. Harvick won the first two Cup races ever run at Chicago (2001-02) and finished second in 2011. He’s a nice choice at 10-to-1 odds this week and probably has the best chance outside of the top three in Chase odds to win his first Cup title at 18-to-1.
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