Chasing Jimmie Johnson at Chicagoland

September, 15, 2011

Ah, here we are at the Chase, and I do believe it's my time to shine.

But, how much can we depend on past numbers to judge performance at Chicagoland Speedway. After all, this is the first time it's been the first race of the Chase. And unlike past races, this one will be run during the day instead of at night.

Plus, a September race in Chicago is bound to have different temperatures and different track conditions than on a hot, slippery July night.

But let's try to break down some of the notable Chase contenders using past numbers at Chicago, starting with Mr. Five-Time himself, Jimmie Johnson.

This is one of the rare tracks where Johnson has never won, but in seven of his nine starts there, he has finished eighth or better, including a pair of runner-up finishes. But in two of the past four years, Johnson has struggled and finished 37th (2007) and 25th (2010).

Johnson leads all drivers dating back to 2005 in average start and average midrace position at Chicago, but his average finish in that time is 13.5. Speed isn't a problem: His 187 fastest laps run paces the field, with Matt Kenseth (156) and Tony Stewart (124) the only other drivers over 100.

Speaking of Smoke, I'm not ready to rule him out of the Chase, despite his uninspiring performance this year. But Stewart has shown the ability to drop the hammer this time of year, even when he has entered the playoff struggling.

In 2006, Stewart missed the Chase but responded by winning three playoff races, and he finished second and fourth in two others.

It might not matter where Stewart starts, either. Since 2005, his pass differential at Chicago is a plus-141, better than double the next best on the list, Carl Edwards' plus-70.

What about the quiet one, Matt Kenseth? Kenseth is quietly solid in every situation at Chicago, and has shown the speed to win on the 1.5-mile track this season.

Kenseth is third in green-flag speed, speed in traffic and the second-fastest driver late in runs behind Stewart. Kenseth's Chicago finishes over the past couple of years haven't been anything special, but he led a lot of laps in both 2005 and 2006.

Finally, Jeff Gordon has finished second and third at Chicago the last couple of years, and he certainly has more speed this year than the last couple. Expect him to be up front all race, as he didn't fall outside the top 15 in either of the last two Chicago races.

The Eliminator: Chicagoland

Most people just pick winners, some by hunches, some by stats and some by just picking names off the top of their heads. I don't pick winners; I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

1. The last six Chicago winners finished in the top 11 in the previous Chicago race (37 eliminated, 11 remaining).

2. The first Chase race always has been won by a Chase driver (five eliminated, six remaining).

3. The last three Chicago winners finished 17th or better in each of the two previous Chicago races (three eliminated, three remaining).

4. Three of the last four Sprint Cup Series winners this season finished in the top three in the previous week's race (two eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Carl Edwards.

Matt Willis | email

ESPN Staff Writer
Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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