After the insane, wreck-fest of last Saturday night's restrictor plate race at the Daytona International Speedway, we return to the bread and butter of Sprint Cup with a visit to Chicagoland Speedway. Opened in 2001, Chicagoland Speedway is a mile-and-a-half, D-shaped oval: better known in NASCAR parlance as a "cookie cutter" track. This will be the Sprint Cup circuit's 10th visit to the Joliet, Ill. venue, and Saturday evening's LifeLock.com 400 will be a good indicator as to potential "Chase" form. But it's not just that, it's also a race weekend where you can be so much more confident about your Fantasy line-ups -- never a bad thing. So, without further ado, let's get to it and take a look at the runners and riders for this weekend.
Tony Stewart: A 25th place finish at Daytona aside, Stewart's form over the last couple months has shown marked improvement after a sluggish start. Smoke will then relish a trip to Chicagoland where he has won twice in nine attempts and has seven top-10s, good enough for an average finish of 9.6. Winless in 2010, Stewart has been threatening to break through for a few weeks now and make it to Victory Lane for the 38th time in 411 attempts. Don't be surprised if Stewart does just that this weekend and leads the field to the checkered flag.
By the Numbers: Among active drivers, Smoke has led 396 laps or 96 more than his closest challenger -- Matt Kenseth.
Kasey Kahne: It's fair to say 2010 has not been a marquee year for NASCAR's resident heartthrob. Kahne does have five top-5s and has led 296 laps, but five finishes of 30th or worse have left the Budweiser pitchman on the outside looking in. It's not all doom and gloom, however, as Kahne is still just 154 markers back from 12th place Carl Edwards. In short: There's still time for Kahne to make the big dance, but he'll have to start "getting it done" under the lights this weekend. And with three of his top-5's coming at similarly configured tracks, it's a good place to start.
By the Numbers: Kahne finished third in this race last year.
Jimmie Johnson: Just a few short weeks ago, pundits and fans alike were falling over themselves to write off the four-time champion. Two wins later and suddenly everyone who fell off the bandwagon is grappling their way back onto the cart. This weekend could, then, be his third win in four races. In eight attempts, Double J has five top-5 finishes and two other top-10 efforts: good for a series best average finish of 8.1.
By the Numbers: With his recent win at Infineon, Johnson has now won at 18 of the 22 tracks on the Cup Series slate. The four exceptions are Homestead, Michigan, Watkins Glen and Chicagoland.
Kevin Harvick: Picking Harvick in the B-list feels a little odd this season, given he's led the points for the last 13 weeks. In many ways, it's a testament to the immense improvement he and the entire Richard Childress Racing outfit have shown this year. His fine form should continue through this weekend at Chicagoland where, like Stewart, he's won twice and has only finished outside the top-10 three times in nine attempts. The knock on Harvick, however, is that he can't convert the top-5 runs into wins, outside the restrictor plate races where his last three career victories were secured. Look for Harvick to change that this weekend.
By the Numbers: Harvick has an average finish of 8.7 at Chicagoland Speedway, second only to the Champ.
Jeff Burton: Unlike the four drivers above, Burton's numbers at Chicagoland are far from gaudy with three top-10 runs and one pole in nine attempts. More importantly, however, Burton has run well this year at the other cookie cutter circuits, so don't expect that to change this weekend. It seems unlikely Burton will finally end his long winless spell (dating back to Charlotte in October. 2008) but it's not out of the realm of possibility. Given how snake-bit he's appeared to be on the late race double-file restarts, perhaps this is the week where the luck falls squarely in his corner.
By the Numbers: Burton is just one top five finish away from equaling his 2009 statistics of four top-5's and eight top-10's. Now if that doesn't spell improvement, I don't know what does.
AJ Allmendinger: A garage contretemps with the King of NASCAR himself, Richard Petty, at Daytona last weekend just went to highlight the 'Dinger's frustration at his failure to convert fine runs at plate tracks into excellent finishes. The good news for AJ is that he's run well in both previous visits to Chicagoland, finishing 13th on both occasions. And before last weekend he had a streak of six straight top-15 finishes.
By the Numbers: AJ has an average finish of 13th at the cookie cutter tracks so far this season.
Who'll win? Tony Stewart: I'm backing Smoke to wheel his No. 14 Chevy Impala all the way to Victory Lane this weekend for a maiden win in 2010.
Next Up: It's a much needed "summer" week off before we head back to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400.