Every NASCAR driver in the Chase knows the number by heart: 11.3. That's the average finish of the eventual Cup champion in the first race of the playoffs since the Chase format was adopted in 2004. The number underscores a fundamental truth about Chase race No. 1: The championship can't be won at Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday, but it certainly can be lost.
"You always like to start the Chase fast, but it's so important not to have a bad day in that first race," says Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion. "We've done that and put ourselves in a hole and been able to climb out of it, but certainly it's not something you want to do."
There's another reason Sunday's race in the Land of Lincoln will be so revealing: It takes place on a 1.5-mile track, and five of the 10 Chase races will be run at these intermediate-length venues. So we should know by around 5 p.m. ET on Sunday which Chase drivers will be fast at the four other intermediates -- and therefore have a legitimate shot at the title.
There's also this: Teams are all bringing their latest and greatest technology to the track this weekend. The cars that will line up on Sunday will have all the up-to-date bells and whistles, as crew chiefs have spent a season perfecting them.
"We'll have a pretty good idea of who will be strong and who won't right out of the gate," says Johnson.
Yes we will. And here the five drivers I expect to be very, very strong on Sunday.
The numbers indicate that Johnson should have a quality afternoon at Chicagoland. He has one win here in nine starts, a career average running position of 8.4 (third best in the series) and a driver rating of 112.0 (tops in the series). Johnson will be piloting a spanking new car and, once again, Mr. Five-Time appears to be peaking at the perfect time: he's finished in the top 10 in nine of the last 12 races.
Yet the air of invincibility that has surrounded Johnson in recent years simply doesn't exist right now. He only has one win this season -- the fewest he's had entering the Chase since his title run began -- and his uncharacteristic feud with Kurt Busch seems to reveal a sense of uneasiness within Johnson and his No. 48 crew.
But when I spent time with Johnson at Atlanta two weeks ago, he was as confident as ever, which is probably rooted in the fact that the Chase schedule sets up better for him than any other driver because he doesn't have a weak track in the 10-race playoff. I expect Johnson to pull out a top-five finish on Sunday and then seriously contend for wins at Dover on Oct. 2nd and Martinsville on Oct. 30 -- probably his two best tracks in the Chase.
Could it be that Edwards was sandbagging the garage during the mid-summer months? After starting the season as strong as anyone and taking the early points lead, Edwards struggled for most of June and July. But now he has come on strong, recording back-to-back top-five finishes. He looks primed for a big Chase.
Like Johnson, Edwards will be driving a new car this weekend. This is a key race for the No. 99 team because Edwards has been considered the sport's top driver on intermediate-length tracks for several years. He's never won here, but I'd be surprised if he didn't wind up in the top five.
Gordon is clearly reinvigorated this season, and this is his best chance to win his first championship under the Chase format. He won two weeks ago in Atlanta in a riveting duel with Johnson (many scribes have used that as a metaphor to explain why Gordon will beat J.J. in this Chase) and he's performed well all season long on the intermediates. Gordon has one win at Chicago and six top-five runs. I think he pulls out another top-five on Sunday, and I'd also be shocked if he wasn't in contention for the title nine weeks from now at Homestead-Miami.
Busch has a series-best four wins in 2011 (tied with Kevin Harvick) and he won the regular-season points title. Yet Busch has never fared well in the Chase. In his four previous playoff appearances, his average finish in the final standings has been only 8.25.
Will this year be different? Well, if he can learn how to points race (i.e., display patience behind the wheel and not press the issue when his car is struggling) and keep his fenders clean, he'll have a real shot at the title because he's flashed as much raw speed this season as any other driver. In six career starts at Chicagoland, Busch's average finish is 13.5. On Sunday he'd be happy with a top-10 run.
Stewart is my Chase sleeper. He didn't qualify for the playoffs until the regular-season finale at Richmond and he's yet to win this season, but I get the sense that this team could do something special this fall. Stewart finished third at Atlanta two weeks ago (he gained four spots over the final four laps), which showed that he and his crew have turned a corner. And remember: Stewart could easily have four victories right now if he'd had a little racing luck earlier in the season.
Stewart excels at Chicagoland. In the 10 Cup races at the 1.5-mile track, he has two wins, has led a series-high 396 laps and has a series-best average running position of 7.4. Momentum is a very real force in NASCAR -- just as it is in stick-and-ball sports -- and if Stewart can start the Chase with a win, it could have a snowball effect. It says here he gets it done and emerges from Chicagoland with the trophy and an important first win of 2011.