Fantasy NASCAR race preview: GEICO 400
Like so many other tracks on the schedule, Chicagoland Speedway is a 1.5-mile D-shaped oval, but is slightly different from most cookie-cutter tracks. In terms of corner banking, Chicagoland has the least amount of any 1.5-mile track other than Kentucky Speedway and Kansas Speedway. The unique element of the track is the curved back stretch. Since Chicagoland lacks a true straightaway, drivers cannot simply cruise near the wall at any point on the track. It may have some quirks but reviewing the results from other intermediate tracks, particularly Kansas, makes for a good review while owners are evaluating picks for the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Practice sessions: Friday, September 14, at 1:00 pm ET, 4:00 pm ET
Drivers to keep an eye on
Even though consistency has been an issue for Stewart this season, eight of his 10 top-fives have been podium finishes, highlighted by three wins. Stewart owns three career wins at Chicagoland, including last year's event. Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Smoke has never held an average running position worse than 10th with a career pace of 7.7 that leads the entire field. Despite some erratic performances, this looks like a solid venue for the defending series champ.
Last year at Chicagoland, Keselowski qualified sixth and finished fifth with an average running position of 11th, all new career bests at the site. Since winning at Kentucky earlier this year, his third victory of 2012, the Blue Deuce has only finished outside of the top 10 once in nine starts while scoring five top-fives. Over the last six races of the season, no driver has scored more points than Keselowski. This is precisely the type of reliability needed to make a run at the championship.
In half a dozen career starts, Bowyer has claimed five top-10 finishes at Chicagoland. He enters the season coming off a victory last week at Richmond International Raceway, which gives him six finishes of eighth or better over the last eight races. Bowyer is a solid, all-around driver that can run well on any type of track, giving him dark horse status for the Chase.
After four rough starts at Chicagoland, Kahne has gone on to record four straight top-15 finishes at the site. With such a strong resume on nearly every other cookie-cutter track on the circuit, it's a wonder Kahne has only managed a single top-five near the Windy City. Earlier in the season he finished eighth at Kansas and was the runner-up at Kentucky, two similar 1.5-mile tracks with shallow banking. A breakthrough could happen this week.
Prior to last year's disappointing 24th-place result at Chicagoland, Gordon claimed the runner-up position in 2009 and added another podium finish in 2010. Over the last three races of the year, Gordon has finished no worse than third and has been the runner-up each of the last two weeks. After an awful start to the season, the No. 24 squeaked into the Chase as a wild card and now draws a great track to begin the postseason.
Since 2007, Newman has only finished outside of the top 10 once in five starts at Chicagoland. Last year he recorded a career best average running position of fifth and never dropped below eighth during the race. It's been a disappointing season for Newman, but he's a middle-tier driver worthy of consideration if he shows some spark during the practice sessions.
In 2009, Martin led 195 of 267 laps at Chicagoland in a dominating performance. The last two years he's finished 15th and ninth, respectively, at the site. A similar result should be expected from Martin this week thanks to four finishes of 12th or better over his last five starts. Even though Martin has only started 17 of the 26 races held this season, he leads the series with four poles.
Even though the No. 22 car will be going to Joey Logano in 2013, Hornish is proving himself during his second stint as a full-time driver in the Cup series. Over his last five starts, Hornish has finished 12th or better four times and recorded his first top-five since 2009. Keep Hornish in mind as a bottom-tier selection.
Temper your expectations
Even though Hamlin begins the Chase atop the standings, he's struggled at Chicagoland. In six career starts he's finished 14th or worse four times but did finish fifth in 2009 and eighth in 2010. Last year, however, he ended the day back in 31st. On the positive side, Hamlin won at Kansas earlier this season and finished third at Kentucky. Hamlin's performance has been up and down all year so his sketchy history on this track is a concern.
Over the last three years, Biffle has finished outside of the top 25 in each event held at Chicagoland. In fact, he's only managed one top-10 finish in nine career starts at the site. The Biff ended the regular season first in points but gets shuffled back to fifth to start the Chase because of his two wins.
About Eric McClung
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. Follow @EricMcClung
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