Preview: 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – Chicagoland


Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images

This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Speedway for the Tales of the Turtles 400; the opening round of the 2017 Playoffs. From here on in, a win for any of the playoff contenders will see them advance straight to the next round, but that won’t stop any non-playoff drivers from stealing a win if they get the opportunity.

Chicagoland Speedway held its first NASCAR Cup Series event in July 2001 and has gone on to host a race every year since. The 1.5-mile tri-oval features 18° of banking on its four corners and it will be toured 267 times in Sunday’s race. Stages one and two will comprise of 80 laps, with the final stage lasting for 107 laps.

The last four years have seen four different race winners at Chicagoland Speedway, so what are the chances that we’ll see a fifth this weekend? Let’s see who is in contention for the race win on Sunday and who will kick off their playoffs in the best way possible.

Martin Truex Jr has to be considered a potential race winner at almost every race this season, such is the pace of his #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry. He’s taken victory on almost every kind of race track that the NASCAR Cup Series visits and with Chicagoland being a Toyota hot-spot in the last few years, there’s every chance he’ll be at the front again.

What makes that possibility even more likely is that Truex Jr is the defending race winner at Chicagoland. Twelve months ago, Truex was for once on the right side of luck when a late-race caution bunched the field back up for a final round of pit-stops and an overtime finish. Truex’s pit-crew got him out ahead of previous race leader Chase Elliott, with the #78 driver going on to blast past Ryan Blaney on fresher tyres to take the victory. His car seems much more dominant than it did last year, so Truex may not have to rely on a late caution to get the win this time around.

Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

My next pick for the race win is a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. The team is the most successful squad at Chicagoland Speedway, with five victories to their name in the sixteen race history of the track. One of those victories belongs to Matt Kenseth. His Chicagoland victory came back in 2013 when he led the most laps of the day en-route to a victory that helped his championship chances that year.

Similarly, a win on Sunday would help Kenseth’s 2017 campaign immensely. Kenseth has yet to bag a race win so far this year, but his consistent run of strong finishes in the last few months helped earn him a spot in the playoffs based on points. Consistent top tens may help him through the first round of the playoffs, but he and the #20 team will be wanting that first win of the season to help their momentum going forward. With Kenseth on a run of four consecutive top tens at the speedway, with a further four throughout his career so far; this could finally be the weekend that Kenseth gets to victory lane.

Moving away from Toyota drivers, Brad Keselowski had a great start to his 2017 season, notching up his pair of victories within the first few months of the year. Since then, however, he’s had a lackluster list of results. Entering the playoffs, he’ll be hoping that he and the #2 Team Penske team can start fighting for wins again. There’s every chance that that could start this weekend at Chicagoland.

Keselowski is the most recent repeat winner at Chicagoland Speedway. He’s had two victories at the speedway in his Cup series career, his first coming at 2012 followed by the second in 2014. When he hasn’t won at the circuit, he’s usually featured near the top of the scoreboards; with the #2 driver on a run of six consecutive top ten finishes at the speedway. If the Penske Ford can find its front running pace once more, you can bet on Keselowski to be a factor on race day.

My fourth pick for the race win at Chicagoland is another Ford driver. Kevin Harvick‘s 2017 has largely been about his and the Stewart-Haas Racing team’s ongoing acclimatization after switching from Chevrolet to Ford in the off-season. However, that hasn’t stopped Harvick from attaining great results that have seen him qualify for the playoffs.

Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images

Chicagoland has traditionally been a good hunting ground for Harvick, too. In his debut season in 2001, he took the second victory of his Cup series career at Chicagoland; the Speedway’s first race in NASCAR. He followed that up with another win twelve months later, with a further seven top ten finishes since then. The last two years have been tough for the #4 team, however. Harvick was involved in an incident with Jimmie Johnson in 2015 that forced his race retirement and also led to a post-race altercation between the pair. Last year was just as tough after Kevin was forced to start last and was then penalized for unapproved adjustments during the race, thus trapping him a lap down for much of the event.

The last two years have been tough for the #4 team, however. Harvick was involved in an incident with Jimmie Johnson in 2015 that forced his race retirement and also led to a post-race altercation between the pair. Last year was just as tough after Kevin was forced to start last and was then penalized for unapproved adjustments during the race, thus trapping him a lap down for much of the event. If he and the team can avoid such dramas this time around, then Harvick may just be able to contend for a second race win of the season; a win that would see him through to the second round of the playoffs.

My final pick for a potential race winner on Sunday is a driver who didn’t manage to make it to the playoffs. Erik Jones may have left Richmond last weekend disappointed to have not made the cut, but nevertheless, the rookie continued his run of great results with a sixth consecutive top ten finish. He’s managed to get in the top ten on ten occasions in his first year of Cup competition so far, but he’s yet to grab that first win of his career.

Chicagoland could be the track where he gets that win. During his tenure in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Jones raced at the Speedway on three occasions and took victory twice. The win may be one race too late to get him a spot in the playoffs, but if he’s given the chance on Sunday, he’ll take it.

On track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins on Friday with first practice, followed by qualifying later in the afternoon. Another two practice sessions will follow on Saturday, with the 2017 Tales of the Turtles 400 taking place on Sunday afternoon.