Five things to watch at Chicagoland

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JOLIET, Ill. – Since its inception 11 years ago, the Chase for the Sprint Cup has faced an enduring question though format changes, field expansions and fluctuations in tallying points.

Can a Sprint Cup team flip a switch and elevate its performance over the final 10 races of the season?

But as the playoffs begin today at Chicagoland Speedway, the concept actually could be posed in reverse.

Can a team revert to its early season and surge to the championship?

With NASCAR electing to use rules it used for the first four months of the season over the final 10 races of the season, it casts some doubt on how indicative recent results are in forecasting title contenders.

Joe Gibbs Racing has eight wins in the past 11 races, and its most consistent rival has been Team Penske (two wins by Joey Logano during that stretch). The organizations’ summer success coincided with two months of tinkering with car regulations. NASCAR experimented with low downforce and high drag approaches in hopes of improving the racing.

The initiative met with mixed results on quality (thumbs up on low downforce, thumbs down on high drag), but the impact was undeniable on the finishing order. JGR swept the four races (Kentucky, Indianapolis, Michigan and Darlington) with the new rules.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet drivers haven’t triumphed in the nine races since the July 11 debut of low downforce at Kentucky – after winning 11 of the first 17 races this season (including four victories by Jimmie Johnson, who enters the playoffs as the top seed).

Chicagoland marks the return of the package that brought the most success in 2015 for Hendrick Motorsports, and it’s also the first of the Chase’s five 1.5-mile tracks – where the Chevys of Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing won the first four races this year.

There already have been signs this weekend of an uptick in speed for the Chevrolets. Defending series champion Kevin Harvick paced Friday’s lone practice (with the reward of a pole position when qualifying was rained out), and Martin Truex Jr. (who had 14 top 10s in the first 15 races but three in the ensuing 11 races) was fastest in two sessions Saturday.

But Chevy drivers have tried to downplay the suggestion that they will benefit as the rules remain static through the Nov. 22 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I don’t think that’s going to matter,” Jeff Gordon said. “When I look at the races Jimmie won, they did a great job executing. I think Atlanta they were pretty quick. The other ones, they did a great job as a team. I don’t think it’s because we were outpacing the competition. I think the rules are not going to change things.”

Johnson didn’t exactly back into his wins, though. He led 92 laps at Atlanta and 128 at Texas.

The six-time series champion deflected a question about his strength with this weekend’s rules, noting he prefers lower downforce and tabbing others as favorites such as JGR and Harvick.

“No doubt the Gibbs lineup, those guys have speed in cars and be a real threat,” Johnson said. “There’s no way around it. But the champ still should have the respect. Until someone takes it from (Harvick), it’s (his) championship to win.”

Indeed, Harvick has been the lone Chevy driver to embrace the notion that he is primed to excel in the playoffs – though not necessarily because of the technical specifications.

“I think it’s all about having the experience,” he said. “It’s really not about having the fastest car at this particular point. It’s about having experience to go out and handle the emotions of 10 weeks. I think as you go into these 10 weeks, you have to put it all together, and there’s a lot more than racing to handle.”

Other storylines to watch at Chicagoland:

–Regardless of whether there is another controversy over the leader jumping the green flag, restarts will remain a major focus because NASCAR has repositioned one of its pit cameras and an official to keep a closer eye.

–Since being reassigned as the Chase opener, Chicagoland has been tough on engines. Last year, Aric Almirola’s title bid ended with a breakdown in the opener, and engine woes at Chicagoland effectively quashed the title bids of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano in 2013.

Denny Hamlin will start 29th – lowest of the 16 Chase drivers – after a poor effort in Friday practice (though he rounded with the second-fastest speed in Saturday’s first session), and Clint Bowyer (26th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (19th) also will be starting deep in the pack.

–It’s not known for being a track that emphasizes fuel mileage, but strategy plays often seem crucial over 400 miles at Chicagoland. With six first-time crew chiefs in the playoffs, it bears watching whether a team eliminates its championship bid with a tactical error.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings

Cup playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Kurt Busch flipped the script on the Cup playoff standings with his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings, but is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.

Replacing Busch in the bottom spot of the playoff standings is Austin Dillon. He is 32 points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final cutoff spot.

Behind Bowman is Kyle Busch (-9 points), Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Dillon.

“Obviously, the 1 car (Kurt Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” Clint Bowyer said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. (Kurt Busch) winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out.”

Here is the full playoff standings entering Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8. Drivers in yellow hold the remaining available playoff spots.

Cup playoff standings