The second half of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season begins Sunday in Chicago with the Overton’s 400 (2:30 PM Eastern, NBCSN). The first 16 races didn’t provide much diversity as far as who wound up in Victory Lane, with NASCAR’s ‘Big Three’ – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. amassing most of the wins on the year. So what will the second half provide?
Who are the favorites?
Well, we begin by looking at this forthcoming race at Chicagoland Speedway. It is one of only two 1.5 mile tracks coming up before the Chase. After a dominating win at Sonoma for his third win of 2018 and considering what we saw last year, you think that defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. would take this one. After all, he’s won back to back races at this track. A three-peat surely wouldn’t be out of the question.
The second of the ‘Big Three’, Kevin Harvick, is due for a win here. He hasn’t won at Chicago since 2002 in a fuel-mileage thriller. A win here would no doubt put him in prime position to clinch the number one seed come September, when we start the Chase.
That brings us to the last of the trio, Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing. His first and only win here came in 2008, his first race here for JGR. Since then, his finishing position has fluctuated between being inside the top 10 or worse than 15th. But it’s not for lack of effort.
Notables to watch
Another notable to look at is the driver of the #9 car – Dawsonville, Georgia driver Chase Elliott. This track was one of his seven second place finishes in 2017. That second place finish came at the hands of none other than reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. He’s been so close many a time in his career, but if he plays his cards right, this may be the race where luck turns in Elliott’s favor and he makes his father – former series champion Bill Elliott – an even prouder parent, as they celebrate the first Cup win for the next generation of the Elliott racing clan.
One more driver to keep an eye on this week is the #48 of Chase Elliott’s teammate, the elder statesman of Hendrick Motorsports – seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, through 16 races so far in 2018, is winless. This is the longest Johnson has gone into a season without a win in his career. Another factor working against the seven-time champion is that he’s yet to win at this track. Chicago hasn’t been particularly good to him recently, but I do expect at least a much-needed top 10 finish from the 48 team.
Start ’em or Sit ’em?
Much like other sports, there are fantasy NASCAR leagues. This question comes up every week – Start ’em or Sit ’em? Here’s my take on the ideal fantasy lineup for Chicago:
Martin Truex Jr. – The defending winner of this race has an average finish of top 10 on 1.5 mile tracks. He’s a sure bet to win on tracks like Chicago and a must start on this type of track.
Kevin Harvick – The Bakersfield, California native hasn’t won here since ’02, but this track has been fairly good to him recently and he’s a definite threat to win every week. No doubt about it – start Harvick!
Kyle Busch – Sure, this track hasn’t been good to him since his win here in 2008, but he’s proven that he can win on the intermediate tracks (tracks a mile in length and above, but not exceeding two miles in length) in his career. Look for Kyle Busch to be a contender in Chicago.
Brad Keselowski – He won here in 2012 (when he won the series title) and 2014. Since then – eighth in 2015, fifth in 2016 and sixth last year. Expect him to be at least top 10 on Sunday.
Chase Elliott – Chicago was the site of one of his seven second-place finishes last year. Sure, he’ll have to slip by some tough competition to get the victory, but if all goes well, it could be the start of a breakthrough for the son of the 1988 series champion.
On the bench: Kyle Larson
Why: He’s won on intermediate tracks before with two wins coming at Michigan and another at his home track of Fontana, both D-shaped ovals, just like Chicago. Larson would make for a great utility option this week
This is the other side of the debate when it comes to fantasy sports – who to sit out. These are the five drivers to avoid using as we head to the Overton’s 400 Sunday in Chicago.
William Byron – Sure, he’s the reigning Xfinity champion and he finished strong when he was at this track in an Xfinity Series car; but he’s in Cup now. The level of competition is higher and mistakes will not go unpunished. Byron still has much to learn before he’s ready to tackle this kind of competition at this type of track.
Alex Bowman – See above for my reasoning on Bowman.
Jimmie Johnson – No wins on the season plus no wins at this track make for the kind of race you sit a guy like Johnson out at, despite him having seven titles. Sure, top tens are fine and all, but the higher your drivers finish, the more points you score. As we get later into the season, top tens just won’t cut it. Advice: Sit Johnson out, possibly start him next week at Daytona.
Clint Bowyer – You may argue that he’s already in the Chase by virtue of his two wins at Martinsville and Michigan, but here are the problems with Bowyer at Chicago: Not only does he not have a win here, he’s also finished outside the top ten in all four of his previous starts here. Whatever you do, sit Bowyer at all costs!
Austin Dillon – He may have good equipment at Richard Childress Racing, but the team is still working on their intermediate track program and the way things are going, it’ll be at least until 2019, maybe 2020 at the latest, before RCR contends for wins on the 1.5 and 2 mile tracks. This makes this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon, a must sit.
20 weeks of racing leading up to the finale at Homestead-Miami in November begins Sunday! Drivers and fans, Start Your Engines!