Stock Car Challenge preview: Chicagoland
The drive towards the Chase for the Cup continues this week. The pressure is building, as Jamie McMurray's win at Daytona moved him into 13th place in the standings. McMurray is now only 49 points behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., who currently sits in the precious final spot in the Chase field. Only eight chances to win remain before the Chase begins, so you're going to see more tight finishes and strong performances from the top drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit.
This week's race is at Chicagoland Speedway, which opened in 2001. It's not easy predicting a winner at NASCAR's youngest track, as there have been five different winners in the past five Chicagoland races. Each winner has come from a different race team as well. This year, there have been 12 different race winners in the Nextel Cup series, with different victors in the each of the past seven races.
The backstretch at Chicagoland is unique, featuring a slight curve that makes it different from other 1 ½ mile tracks on the circuit. This makes for good passing down the backstretch. The groove continues to widen, making Chicagoland a track where drivers can run two or three wide. Last year, Jeff Gordon nipped Jeff Burton by 0.461 seconds for his first win at the site.
Matt Kenseth (22.6): Kenseth has been the best driver at Chicagoland over the past two seasons, but he has no victories at the site. Last season, Gordon got into the back of Kenseth when he was leading. Kenseth finished in 22nd after leading for 112 laps, while Gordon took the controversial win. In 2005, Kenseth led for 176 laps, but nifty pit strategy gave Dale Earnhardt Jr. the victory, while Kenseth finished second. Over the past two years, Kenseth has led the current field at Chicagoland with an average running position of 3.4, 128 fastest laps run and 529 laps in the top 15. Kenseth has six top-5 finishes and 12 top 10s in 2007, and he has led 255 laps in 11 of 18 races. Kenseth has finished in the top 15 in five of six career races at Chicagoland.
Jimmie Johnson (23.2): Johnson is another driver who still hasn't registered a win at Chicagoland despite some strong runs. Johnson never has finished worse than sixth at Chicagoland, and he has an average finish of 3.6. Johnson now has two consecutive top-10 finishes, and he was a late contender at Daytona. He is ready for another strong surge and will push for his fifth win of the season. He owns a series-best average running position of 8.6 this season, He has led for 681 laps in 11 of 18 races. At Chicagoland, he has led for 79 laps in four of five races.
Kyle Busch (21.5): He'll be primed for a good finish after he wasn't able to earn the win at Daytona and voiced his frustrations after placing second. Busch has finished 11th or better in each of the past five races. He finished third at Chicagoland in 2006. In the past two races at the site, he has an average running position of 8.7, third-best among current drivers. He also has 68 quality passes, third-best during that span. NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 while under green flag conditions. Busch has 10 top-10 finishes in 2007 and has the third-fastest average green flag speed.
Kevin Harvick (21.2): Harvick hasn't been fully reliable this season, but you can bank on a good showing at Chicagoland. He won the first two races at the site, becoming the only driver with repeat Chicagoland victories. Over the past two years, his average running position of 5.9 is second-best among current drivers. His 499 laps in the top 15 is also second-best in the field during that span. Harvick finished fourth at Chicagoland last year and has an average finish of 8.7 at the site.
Ryan Newman (19.5): Newman now sits at 14th in the points standings, 61 points behind Earnhardt Jr. and in need of a good showing to stay in Chase contention. He is coming off of consecutive top-15 finishes, won the 2003 race at Chicagoland, and led for 163 laps in three races at the site. He has a pair of top-5 finishes at Chicagoland and one pole. Newman has seven top-10 finishes and four poles in 2007, and you should expect a strong qualifying run from him this week. He has led for 210 laps in eight races this year.
J.J. Yeley (16.8): Yeley has run well at Chicagoland in both the Nextel Cup and Busch Series. For the price, he'll be a terrific value at the site. In 2006, he finished 10th in his first-ever Nextel Cup race at Chicagoland. His comfort level at the site is further evidenced by his Busch results. He finished ninth there in 2004 and 19th in 2006. He led for 25 laps in the '04 race. Yeley has finished in the top 25 in three straight Nextel Cup races.
Reed Sorenson (15.0): Sorenson delivered one of his three top-10 finishes in 2006 at Chicagoland. This year, he has finished in the top 10 at Atlanta and Charlotte, showing he is comfortable on the 1.5 milers. Sorenson had an average running position of 9.0 at Chicagoland last year, with 16 of the fastest laps run, and he spent 96 percent of his laps in the top 15. Sorenson also has finished in the top 10 in both of his Busch Series races at Chicagoland.
Keep Jeff Gordon (25.0) locked in your lineup if you have him. He has four top five finishes at Chicagoland. & Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21.4) is another strong selection. He has two top fives and three top 10s at Chicagoland. & Clint Bowyer (20.2) finished ninth in his only Chicagoland start last season. & Brian Vickers (16.7) has finished in the top 15 in three career races at Chicagoland.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.