Thursday, September 17, 2015

Kevin Harvick favored to kick off Chase with Chicago win

Kevin Harvick won first two Chicago races in track history.
LAS VEGAS -- The past four Sprint Cup champions have kicked off the Chase with a top-five finish at Chicagoland Speedway, including wins by Tony Stewart in 2011 and Brad Keselowski in 2012. Moreover, the elimination format introduced last season has furthered the notion there is little room for error in the 10-race Chase. Drivers have to go for the win to advance automatically, while also playing it safe to race for points.

Chase field: Odds and pick

There will be lots of strategy involved in Sunday's 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), but every Chase participant will be gunning for the win and the opportunity to relax over the next two races. Win and you move on to the next round. Have a bad day and put yourself in position of needing a win in either of the next two races to advance.

It creates some nice scenarios, but perhaps winning is overrated in the format. Last season, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin advanced to the championship race at Homestead without winning a race during the Chase. Newman, in fact, didn't win a race the entire season, but was only a few laps away from stealing the title. The different strategies add to the drama we'll experience over the next 10 weeks.

This will be the seventh race this season on a 1.5-mile track and the first of five in the Chase. The previous six 1.5-mile races have been reliable predictors of the eventual champion, as the title in the Chase-era has been decided on these types of tracks.

However, we've seen an unusual twist this year – the first 26 races have been a tale of two seasons. Jimmie Johnson won three of the first four races on 1.5s and captured his fourth win of the season at Dover on May 31, but he has only two top-five finishes in his past 12 starts.

Kevin Harvick, by finishing first or second in 10 of the first 14 races, built one of the highest individual driver ratings we've seen since Jeff Gordon in 1998. But he came back to the pack when the new low-downforce package was implemented at Kentucky on July 11. That package was also used at Darlington, but the five 1.5s in the Chase all feature the same package the season started with.

In theory, the old set-up means Harvick and Johnson will have an edge Sunday. Martin Truex Jr., who also hit the skids since Kentucky after a strong run of top-10s to start the season, may also be primed for a return to form. But Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing found something with the new set-up that helped them with the old one, and they haven't looked back, combining to win 10 of the past 11 races. Harvick hasn't won since Phoenix in March.

Despite the recent Penske and JGR domination, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook believes the early-season notes on 1.5s are still relevant and has installed Harvick the 9-to-2 favorite to win Sunday's race. Chicagoland's layout is unique but has features similar to Kansas and Las Vegas, and Harvick dominated at Las Vegas. He also led 53 laps at Kansas in May before settling for second. Harvick also won the first two Cup races held at Chicagoland (2001, 2002) and has a 9.6 career average in 14 starts.

Johnson’s drop off has been puzzling, and it hasn't just been the No. 48 – it’s been every team in the Hendrick Motorsports garage. Kasey Kahne missed the Chase and Jeff Gordon hasn't won all season. In addition to Johnson’s poor current form, Chicagoland is one of four tracks he's never won on. However, he's got a track-best 9.2 average finish. The Westgate has posted the six-time champ at 12-to-1 odds to win Sunday.

Read More Here......complete list of Chicagoland odds to win

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