These will be the drivers worth watching in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway:
With Chicagoland as the first of five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase, Truex appears poised to be a major factor in the playoffs. During the regular season, Truex posted an 8.2 average finish across the six races held on 1.5-milers and led the most laps in three of them (including his Charlotte win). Chicagoland hasn’t been great for him (16.3 average finish in 10 starts), but he was up for a top 10 in last year’s Chase opener before a bad final restart relegated him to 13th.
After opening the year with 14 top 10s in the first 16 races, Busch has tailed off with just three top 10s in the last 10 races entering this weekend. That said, he and Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick are the only drivers to notch top-10 finishes in each of the aforementioned six races on 1.5-milers so far. Busch has also gotten a handle on Chicagoland with three straight top-10 runs there, including a third-place showing last year.
Hamlin has now become a trendy pick to make it all the way to Miami, and it’s easy to see why. He enters the Chase with eight consecutive top-10 finishes, including wins at Watkins Glen and last week on home turf at Richmond. An interesting note: In those last eight races, Hamlin’s finish has been better than his average running position in six of them.
A run-in with Jimmie Johnson cost Harvick a chance to open last year’s Chase with a win at Chicagoland, but the 2014 champ figures to be in the mix again Sunday. He enters the Chase with four consecutive top-five finishes (including a win at Bristol) and has had metronomic consistency all year (21 top-10 finishes, most in Cup). The only question: His reconstituted pit crew, which was solid last week at Richmond but now face the pressure of the playoffs.
In 2014, it was Ryan Newman. In 2015, it was Martin Truex Jr. So, who will be the surprise to make it to Miami this year? Larson may well be it. He’s posted three straight top-three finishes, and top-six finishes in five of the last seven races. He’s also been good at Chicagoland in his first two Cup starts there with finishes of third and seventh.