Chicagoland sets the Chase table

JOLIET, Ill. -- Based on a limited sample set of two years, the winner of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN) will go on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

If only it were that simple.

True, the Chicagoland winner has gone on to claim the Sprint Cup in the two years since the 1.5-mile intermediate track switched from a July date to the all-important opening round of NASCAR's 10-race Chase playoffs. Tony Stewart (2011) and Brad Keselowski (2012) both got off to hot starts and held on down the stretch to earn the coveted Sprint Cup.

But in the seven years when the Chase kickoff was held at New Hampshire International Speedway (2004-10), only one opening race winner turned out to be the Chase winner -- Kurt Busch in '04.

Installing Chicagoland as the first Chase venue (New Hampshire is now the second stop) has subtly altered the setup for the rest of the championship countdown. Intermediate tracks make up half of the Chase schedule -- additional stops come at Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead speedways -- so Chicagoland races often serve as accurate predictors.

In that regard, Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth are looking good. They've been the class of the field on intermediate tracks this year, winning five of the six races.

With five wins this season, including three on 1.5-mile ovals (Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky), Kenseth enters the Chase as the No. 1 seed.

But that theoretical advantage didn't work in the Wisconsin native's favor back in 2006. He was ranked on top heading into the 2006 Chase, but, after starting out with a top-10 at New Hampshire, consecutive 35th-place finishes at Dover and Kansas doomed his title bid and he wound up fourth at the end of the season.

Fortunately for the drivers, the Chase is not an elimination system. In the National Football League, the best team in the league can be knocked out with one poor playoff performance. Just ask Peyton Manning.

In the NASCAR Chase, one bad run doesn't necessarily mean one and done. Although it certainly doesn't help.

So, maybe it's not a surprise that Kenseth plays down the importance of the opening race.

"Each point in every race is equally important, and you don't want to have any bad races throughout the Chase," Kenseth said. "Certainly, you don't want to have a bad first one, but you don't want to have any bad ones. You want to start strong and finish strong.

"Everyone always groups mile-and-a-half tracks together, but a lot of them couldn't really be any more different," he added. "I'm as confident going into Chicago this weekend as anywhere else."

Kyle Busch certainly knows about how important it is for a driver to get his Chase campaign off to a good start -- and how devastating a bad start can be to a driver's championship aspirations.

For Busch, 2008 is the Chase he'd like to have back for a do-over. After dominating the regular season with eight wins, Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing started the Chase with finishes of 34th, 43rd and 28th and never really recovered, stumbling to 10th place in the final standings.

Busch certainly noticed the way Chicagoland race wins propelled Stewart and Keselowski to overall Chase wins the past two years.

"I'm not so sure the winner in this race winning the championship is coincidence," Busch remarked after qualifying 12th for Sunday's 267-lap contest.

"A solid day on Sunday … if we win, sure, I'll take it," he added. "I'm not saying we don't want to. We just need a solid day to get started here and get rolling. Just being able to get a good start to the Chase is obviously more beneficial."

Getting off to that good start has almost always been an important cornerstone in building a championship campaign. In the nine-year history of the Chase format, only five-time Cup Series Jimmie Johnson has successfully overcome a really bad first race. Johnson finished 39th at New Hampshire International Speedway on the way to his first title in 2006, and his last title run also started poorly -- also at New Hampshire, with a 25th-place run in 2010.

Chicagoland is one of only five NASCAR tracks where Johnson has never won in the Cup series, slthough he says "we do have a lot of great history here."

Last year, he led 172 laps but finished second to eventual Cup series champion Keselowski.

Johnson's sweep of every Cup championship from 2006 to 2010 was based more on being consistent throughout the entire 10-race Chase sequence than anything else. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has never won the Chase's opening round, but he and his Hendrick Motorsports team have almost always found a way to get hot at the right time.

Johnson won three of his titles with just one win in the Chase, but he also came second to Kurt Busch in 2004 despite winning four Chase rounds. Much of his Chase prowess is built around success on the short tracks. Johnson has won 15 times in 46 starts at Martinsville and Dover.

This year, Johnson is coming off four consecutive poor results that dropped him from a commanding lead down to second place in the regular-season point standings, behind Carl Edwards.

"I would love to have more momentum coming into the Chase, without a doubt," Johnson said. "But I feel very comfortable about where we are.

"With the Chase having five mile-and-a-half style racetracks in it, I look at the speed we've had, even though the finishes weren't there."

Kyle Busch, for one, believes the No. 48 team will come out strong in the Chase.

"There's a switch somewhere over at Hendrick's that they'll flip, and they'll be just fine in Chicago," Busch said.

Friday's news that Jeff Gordon has been added to this year's Chase as a one-off 13th entry could work to the benefit of Johnson and the Hendrick team.

Gordon now has the opportunity to write a fairy-tale script thanks to his 11th-hour admission into the championship battle.

"We have 10 or -- at least eight, I'd say -- good racetracks in the Chase that I really like, that we run well at," said Gordon, who has won four Cup series crowns but none under the Chase format. "It starts right here in Chicago, and this is a good track for us.

"But it's all about your car, at that track, at that moment," he added. "You could have the worst year you've ever had and suddenly hit [the setup]. We've seen that happen this year with different teams, where they just hit it. All of a sudden, it's like, 'Where did they come from? How did they win that race?'

"It can happen to anybody, and it certainly can happen to us."