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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