Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Chicagoland – The Pressure To Perform For Joe Gibbs Racing

1. Who’s ready to step up in Round One of the Chase?

We’ve been talking about it all season long, and now, it’s finally here. The 2015 Chase is upon us, and from here on out, every race has a stake in the championship. All of the Chase-eligible drivers and teams are entering this race knowing that a win could carry them to the next round, and that a bad race could potentially knock them out of title contention. Needless to say, setting the tone early is important for a team in the postseason.

With this in mind, the biggest question entering this Sunday’s race at Chicagoland will be which teams come out of the gate strong. Last year, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano all posted solid runs in the Chase opener, and all three wound up making deep postseason runs. Getting off to a good start is absolutely crucial, and the teams who run up front will likely be the ones most likely to still be in contention in Homestead.

Keep an eye all race long on who shows speed and who is capable of keeping their car in the top five for the majority of the race. The ones who do so are likely the teams that are best equipped for a title run.

2. Will Joe Gibbs Racing maintain their dominance?

Coming off a dominating night in Richmond, Joe Gibbs Racing and it’s four Chase-contending teams led the storylines of the 2015 Chase media blitz this week. Pretty much everyone in the garage is convinced that the JGR bunch, especially Matt Kenseth, are the favorites to win the 2015 title. Those beliefs are well-founded, seeing as JGR has won an astounding eight of the past 10 Cup races. But can they actually maintain that level of performance now that every other team in the garage is in championship-mode?

It’s a worthy question to ask, largely because we’ve seen this story before. In 2008, 2010 and 2011, JGR and its stable of drivers entered the Chase appearing to be the team to beat. In all three of those seasons, the team was delivered varying levels of defeat by other organizations that flew under the radar for much of the regular season.

Personally, I think the JGR group is due to “peak” at any moment, simply because it’s impossible to keep rival teams like Stewart-Haas, Penske,, and Hendrick down for so long. Chicagoland will thus give us a good idea of whether or not JGR still is capable of dominating for the rest of the season.

3. Can Chicagoland produce another thriller?

To the surprise of many, last season’s Chase opener at Chicagoland was a bonafide thriller. Passing was plentiful all throughout the race, every lane on the racetrack was effective, green-flag lead changes were aplenty and the race was won via an exciting three-wide move executed by Keselowski. For a high-downforce, modern-day mile-and-a-half track race, it was about as exciting as you can get, and it helped set the stage for a successful postseason for the sport.

Now, one year later, many suits in the NASCAR offices are holding their breath in anticipation of a similar outcome in this year’s opener. Some pundits have expressed concern that the relative lack of action in intermediate track races this season will carry over to the Chase, citing early-season snoozers at Vegas, Charlotte and Kansas as evidence that a similar offering of tepid racing could be on tap for Sunday.

By my estimation, I don’t see that happening. Loop data tells us that the tracks that have suffered as a result of the 2015 rules package are tracks that are either very narrow (Charlotte), or have relatively new pavement (Vegas, Kansas, Michigan, etc.). Tracks that have weathered surfaces (Atlanta and Texas, namely) have actually seen a slight increase in total number of passes in 2015 vs. 2014, and as luck would have it, Chicago has a 14-year-old surface that is ancient by today’s standards.

This means that if we use loop data as our basis for prediction (spoiler alert: we usually can), we can expect another competitive Chicagoland race on Sunday, all courtesy of a sunny day and a worn-out racing surface.

4. Can any non-Chasers build momentum for 2016?

For the next 10 weeks, the lion’s share of the media attention will rightfully go to the 16 drivers who are competing for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship. However, that doesn’t mean that the other drivers in the field will just cease to exist. Rather, each of those teams will look to use these next 10 races as a means to build momentum and resources for their 2016 campaign. And, let’s be clear here, there’s a number of drivers and teams that could use a good run or two right now.

You could start with David Ragan, arguably the highest profile Cup driver who doesn’t have a ride for 2016 (yes, I know Clint Bowyer does not have an official ride yet, but come on, we all know he’s going to land somewhere competitive). Just when it looked like Ragan had found a competitive home in the Cup series, his new team, Michael Waltrip Racing, announced that it was closing up shop after the 2015 season. That leaves Ragan with 10 races in good equipment to prove that he still deserves good equipment.

Then you have teams like Roush Fenway Racing, a historically competitive outfit that failed to put a team in the Chase for the first time in the organization’s history. For a team with as many resources as RFR does, there really is no excuse for their recent lack of performance. With the pressure off for at least the next two months, can Jack Roush and Co. find the magic that will bring them success in 2016?

Chicagoland will be a new beginning of sorts for organizations and drivers like the ones described above, and with each new beginning a compelling story is ready to be told. Don’t forget about these folks over the next 10 weeks, as they could offer some added drama to the week-to-week soap opera that is the Chase for the Cup.

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