Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway

Welcome to the Skirts and Scuffs preview for the Chase for the Sprint Cup title. Each Friday you’ll see our race preview and on Monday following the race we will recap the performance of those racing for the title.

Anything can happen this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway as the Gen-6 car makes its first trip to the Windy City. Drivers will be on edge after last weekend’s controversy and the chances of retaliation are high given how things unfolded after Richmond.

This season's Chase field includes four past Sprint Cup Series champions, five Nationwide Series champions, and one Camping World Truck Series champion.

13 drivers. 10 races. Who will take it all at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

Here’s how they stack up at Chicagoland.

The 2003 champion is seeded first
Matt Kenseth – seeded 1st with 5 wins
By: Beth Bence Reinke

Matt Kenseth will take the green flag at Chicagoland as the top seed in the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Kenseth visited Victory Lane five times this year with wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, Darlington, Kentucky and Bristol, tying his record of five wins from the 2002 season.

Overall, Kenseth has 29 career Cup wins in 498 starts, with almost half of his races ending in top-10 finishes (241 out of 498.)

After the Richmond race last weekend, Kenseth shared what being “top seed” means to him and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team, in his modest, low-key style:

“Proud of my team, obviously, for putting us here. We've had really a terrific 26 weeks, led some laps, fortunate enough to win some races. Excited to be up on top. Looking forward to Chicago and kicking off.”

Kenseth heads to Chicago with an average finish of 12.8 in 12 Cup starts at the track – a better showing than two-thirds of his fellow Chasers.

Five-time has struggled in recent weeks
Jimmie Johnson – seeded 2nd with 4 wins
By: Rebecca Kivak

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is looking to make it a six-pack. Johnson starts the Chase with four wins under his belt after leading the Sprint Cup point standings for all but three weeks during the regular season. Johnson enters Chicagoland as the second seed, tied with Kyle Busch as the second-winningest driver this year.

A championship favorite, the driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet needs to turn around the bad luck that has followed him the last four weeks. After his engine expired at Michigan, Johnson has four straight finishes of 28th or worse, including last week at Richmond. Johnson went to the garage with battery problems and after returning to the track, he blew a tire and hit the wall, leading to a 40th-place finish.

Coming to Chicagoland, Johnson has amassed nine top fives and 15 tops 10s during the regular season. Interestingly, none of his four wins came at an intermediate track. The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway is one of a handful tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule where Johnson does not have a win, but he does have six top 5s, nine top 10s and an average finish of 9.3 in 11 starts here.

Despite the No. 48’s struggles, one thing we know by now is never count them out. This team traditionally excels during the Chase, and you can be sure they have their eye on title No 6.

“There's always a little concern,” Johnson said at Richmond after their streak of bad finishes. “Without a doubt you want to enter the Chase with momentum. I think every team falls back on past history. We have won championships without momentum going into the first race. So we're going to fall on our experience and also the experience of knowing the Chase is so different than anything else.”

Busch has done the bow four times this season
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud
Kyle Busch – seeded 3rd with 4 wins
By: Stephanie Stuart

After a disappointing 2012 season which left Kyle Busch outside the Chase looking in, hopes were high for 2013. It was no surprise that Busch came out of the gate strong, looking to make an impression early.

The 18 team comes into the Chase seeded third, just three points behind teammate and Chase leader Matt Kenseth, after an impressive season that saw four wins, 11 top fives and 15 top 10s. Busch also led an impressive 1,102 laps. This is the sixth time in his eight-year Sprint Cup career that Busch has competed for the title. His best finish came in 2007 when he finished fifth.

While Chicagoland may not be Busch's best track, his average finish is 13.4 and he has one win (2008). He is hoping to reproduce that win this weekend and establish himself as a solid contender for the 2013 Sprint Cup Championship. 

Kevin Harvick honored first responders this week at TMS
Credit: Debbie Ross
Kevin Harvick – seeded 4th with 2 wins
By: Katy Lindamood

Don’t call Kevin Harvick a lame duck. He may be leaving his team at the end of the season to move to Stewart-Haas Racing, but the driver of the No. 29 wants to end his era at RCR with a bang - by bringing a title to the team he’s been  part of for 12 years.

Harvick starts the 2013 Chase from the fourth position after earning wins at Richmond and Charlotte. Harvick has earned the nickname “The Closer” for his come-from-behind moves late in the race, so don’t expect to see him leading the charge this weekend - just look for him to quietly make his way through the field and be in contention in the closing laps.

Statistically, Chicagoland Speedway has been kind to Harvick. It’s been a decade since his last win at the 1.5-mile track but he has an average finish of 10.5 and has led a total of 282 laps en route to seven top-10s and six top fives.

Edwards has momentum after Richmond win
Carl Edwards – seeded 5th with 2 wins
By: Rebecca Kivak

Carl Edwards enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup with momentum. Though overshadowed by the Michael Waltrip Racing scandal, the driver of the No. 99 Fastenal Ford comes to Chicagoland fresh off his Richmond win, which came with its own controversy as many questioned his beating race leader Paul Menard to the line on the final restart. His second victory of the season propelled Edwards to the top of the point standings before the Chase reset, bumping previous leader Jimmie Johnson.

Edwards is seeded fifth as the Chase kicks off. In addition to his two wins, the Roush Fenway driver collected eight top fives and 13 top 10s during the regular season. Despite some mid-season struggles, the No. 99 has consistently been in the top third of the point standings.

Edwards will attempt to notch his first win in the Windy City, where he has three top fives, three top 10s and an average finish of 16.6 in eight starts at the 1.5-mile track. His best finish here was a second-place effort in 2010. The No. 99 team will unload the primary chassis they used at the June Michigan race, where Edwards claimed the pole and finished eighth.

After his Richmond win, Edwards exuded confidence as he looked ahead to the championship battle. “We're going to win the championship,” Edwards said. “I mean, that's our mission. That seemed like a crazy idea about a month and a half ago, and Jimmy (Fennig, crew chief) and these guys have buckled down. … Next 10 weeks we're going to be on them (Chase field) hard. They're going to know we're here.”

Will having the defending champ as a teammate help Logano? 
Joey Logano – seeded 6th with 1 win
By: Carol D’Agostino

Joey Logano squeezed into the Chase by edging out winless Jeff Gordon by a mere one point. Entering Richmond’s Federated Auto Parts 400 eighth in the driver championship points standings, Logano finished the race in 22nd place.

After the points recalculation due to Michael Waltrip Racing’s penalties, Logano was seeded in sixth place tied with Greg Biffle, 12 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

Logano enters the Chase with a cloud of suspicion about racing irregularities at Richmond between his Penske Racing team and Front Row Motorsports. Although Logano’s average finish at Chicagoland over the past three years has only been 11.5, he has come on strong in the last six races of the season, and is capable of winning this race.

Chicagoland statistics: Tops fives: 0, Top 10s: 1, Wins: 0

Will this be the season Biffle completes his triple crown? 
Greg Biffle – seeded 7th with 1 win
By: Lisa Janine Cloud

If you look in the dictionary - or the Urban Dictionary - for the meaning of the phrase "under the radar," you just might see Greg Biffle's picture as an example.

Amid the chaos, controversy and contentiousness that will likely make the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup memorable for all the wrong reasons, Biffle and the Roush Racing No. 16 Post-It Ford team have done what they always do: suit up and show up.

There's nothing flashy about the team or the driver. No brash personality, no provocative statements to the media, no story of redemption to tell. Just the 2000 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion and 2002 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, focused on becoming the first driver to hold the title in all three national series.

The Biff has scored 19 Cup career wins, tied with drivers like Davey Allison, Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But none of those wins came at Chicagoland, where he's only finished in the top 10 once - a fourth-place finish in 2008. With an average finish of 18.2 at the mile-and-a-half track, he's not likely to be one of the favorites to win.

Where does Biffle think he'll do well?

“The most comfortable are the mile-and-a-half tracks like Texas, Charlotte where we run good," said Biffle in his media availability Thursday.

"Chicago last year was not a great track but I think we will be better this year."

With Fords winning two of the last four races, including Biffle's teammate Carl Edwards last week at Richmond, Biffle may just surprise everyone and pull off a win in the Windy City.

Can Bowyer overcome controversy?
Credit: Debbie Ross
Clint Bowyer – seeded 8th with 0 wins
By Lacy Keyser

Clint Bowyer's night at Richmond was supposed to be easy. He was already locked into the Chase and was looking for a win to add some bonus points to his tally, but his night ended in controversy and the spin heard around the world.

Monday night, the fines were announced and Bowyer got off easy. However, his teammate Martin Truex Jr. not so much, as he was removed from the Chase. Michael Waltrip Racing was also fined $300,000.

One can only wonder how will this affect Bowyer’s chances. Will he have a giant target on his back? Will there be retaliation?

Going into Chicagoland, Bowyer is seeded eighth in the Chase. His stats are as follows: One top five, one top 10, and an average finish of 18.2.

Will problems continue for HMS?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - seeded 9th with 0 wins
By: Lacy Keyser

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an easy night going into Richmond. He had to finish 32nd or better. Earnhardt finished 11th and locked himself  into the Chase as the ninth seed.

Lately it seems the Hendrick cars are getting struck by tire failure, even engine problems. The one thing every Hendrick driver hopes is that these pre-Chase mechanical failures are over.

All Earnhardt Jr. wants is to finally get a win and some top-5 finishes. The time is now for the No. 88 crew to step up their game, and with spotter TJ Majors finally returning after an illness, I think Earnhardt Jr. is going to be just fine.

Going into Chicagoland, Earnhardt Jr.has one win, three top fives and five top 10s. He also has an average finish of 14.3

Will this be the year of the underdog?
Kurt Busch – seeded 10th with 0 wins
By: Stephanie Stuart

It's been a year of resurgence for Kurt Busch. He's spent 2013 trying to prove to people that he can control his temper both in and out of the racecar, and his efforts have paid off. He enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup seeded 10th in points, 15 points behind Chase leader Matt Kenseth. No stranger to the Chase format, Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004. Now he hopes to do it again, only this time from what many are calling insurmountable odds ... as a driver from a single car team.

Busch and the rest of the Furniture Row Racing team have had a solid 2013. While they have yet to win a race, they have put together a string of good runs. Busch managed to bring home eight top-five finishes, five top 10s and six top 20s. This was all accomplished out of a race shop in Denver, Colo., far away from NASCAR's hub of Charlotte, N.C.

Busch says for his team to do well in the Chase, they must master the 1.5-mile speedways, such as Chicagoland. In his previous 12 starts at the track, he has earned six top-five finishes, but no wins. He is hoping that his fondness for the city of Chicago will rub off on the speedway and bring him his first win there this weekend, just what he needs to make a strong statement for the title of 2013 Sprint Cup Champion.

Can Kahne overcome 11th seed?
Kasey Kahne – seeded 11th (Wild Card) with 2 wins
By: Katy Lindamood

“I don’t know if it’s the way I drive this track with this tire, track, car combination, the way I lift, how I told the car out on entry, things like that, or if we’re missing it setup-wise. I’m not sure. I’m definitely glad this isn’t one of the final 10,” said Kasey Kahne following his 14th-place finish last weekend at Richmond.

Frustration has been the ongoing theme throughout 2013. On track run-ins with Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth had Kahne searching for answers via social media, but hopefully that’s all behind as he focuses on a championship run in his second season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Kanhe will have to battle from the rear of the contenders after earning a wild card position that seeded him in 11th heading into Chicagoland, but don’t count him out just yet.

Fortunately for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet, his last four trips to the Windy City have netted three top-10 finishes, tying his career high of third last year.

Welcome to The Chase Rocketman
Ryan Newman – seeded 12th (Wild Card) with 1 win
By: Jessica Tow

Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans/Outback Steakhouse Chevy for Stewart-Haas Racing, goes into race one as the 12th seed in the Chase.

Following the results at Richmond last weekend, Newman originally found himself on the outside of the Chase looking in as Martin Truex Jr. clinched the second Wild Card spot. However, after NASCAR penalized Michael Waltrip Racing for "altering the outcome of the race," Truex Jr. was docked 50 points and knocked out of Cup contention. With Truex Jr. out, Newman was bumped in.

This season to date, Newman has 12 top-10 finishes, six top-five finishes and one win. When it comes to Chicagoland, Newman has one pole, one win, three top-five finishes and seven top 10s in 11 starts.

For Newman, these final 10 races represent not only contention for a championship, but redemption. He has 10 races to prove to himself and his current team that he belongs in this year's Chase.

Gordon becomes the 13th man
Jeff Gordon - seeded 13th (Wild Card) with 0 wins
By: Rebecca Kivak

Jeff Gordon's lucky number may now be 13. In an unprecedented decision, NASCAR added the four-time Sprint Cup champion to the 2013 Chase in the 13th position on Friday the 13th. The move comes in the wake of investigations into race-rigging by Michael Waltrip Racing and a possible bargain between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports at Richmond.

"We believe in looking at all of it that there were too many things that altered the event and gave an unfair disadvantage to Jeff and his team, who would have qualified, and I have the authority to do that," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said Friday.

Gordon joins his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the Chase. Now that the No. 24 is in, it falls on Gordon and the team to prove they belong there.

"I'm very appreciative, very thankful to be in, and I know it's under the most unbelievable circumstances I've ever been a part of in my racing career, and I wish that all of this hadn't happened," Gordon said Friday at Chicagoland. "I wish that we could have just raced for it on Saturday night, but that wasn't the case. Now here we are as a 13th car and in. Now we just try to take that opportunity and make the most of it."

After an up-and-down regular season, Gordon comes off three straight top-10 finishes and a pole at Richmond. He enters Chicagoland with promising stats: one win, six top fives and seven top 10s, including a pair of runner-up finishes. His average finish is 12.1. What Gordon doesn't want is a repeat of last year's Chase opener, when he finished 35th after crashing here one year ago.

Check back Monday to see how the 13 drivers fared at Chicagoland Speedway.
Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway Reviewed by Admin on Friday, September 13, 2013 Rating: 5