Jimmie Johnson had his 41st birthday on Saturday and the best gift was getting a perfectly set-up car that dominated final practices in preparation for Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. The Westgate SuperBook was so impressed with Johnson’s simulated race runs that they slashed his odds to win in half from 12-to-1 to 6-to-1.
Johnson was listed at high odds to begin the week just because he hasn’t been his typical self this season, and he’s also never won at Chicago’s 1.5-mile layout, one of only four tracks he’s never taken the checkered flag. He’s had only one top-five finish in his last 13 starts and hasn’t won a race in his last 21 heading into Chicago. That’s an eternity for a driver that has posted 77 wins over 15 seasons.
During Friday’s first practice session, Johnson posted the fastest individual lap (183.780 mph) and had the best 10-consecutive-lap average. In Saturday’a final sessions he had the second-best 10-consecutive-lap average early and he was tops during “happy Hour” Kyle Larson had the fastest single lap times in both Saturday sessions, but the the long run speeds are what the crews try to work on most. It’s also what bettors and oddsmakers look at the most. During the race when there are long green flag runs, we should see Johnson making a lot of passes and extending a lead if/when he gets out front. He starts eighth.
Now just because Johnson has never won at Chicago doesn’t mean he’s not good there. He’s rated No. 1 in NASCAR’s loop data by a large margin over second-best Kyle Busch. He holds the track record with 577 laps led and has a 9.2 average finish over 14 starts, which included runner-up on three occasions.
While the team has been slumping, it’s apparent that the beginning of the Chase has motivated the team with six Sprint Cup trophies in their garage. Crew chief Chad Knaus obviously found something during an Aug. 23 test session at Chicagoland that they’re putting to good use this week. And it probably won’t stop there, because five of the 10 races in the Chase are on 1.5-mile tracks where the same notes can be applied.
Johnson was the best on long runs overall during practices, but Kevin Harvick was right behind him and actually had the best 10-consecutive lap average during Saturday’s early session. He’s listed as the 5-to-1 favorite at the Westgate and book manager Ed Salmons said “Harvick is a touch better than Johnson, but it’s close.” Harvick won Chicagalond’s first Cup race as a rookie in 2001 and then did it again the next year. He’s averaged an 11.7 finish in 15 starts.
FAST START EQUALS CHAMPIONSHIP?
Kurt Busch won the first Chase race at New Hampshire in 2004 and went on to win the title, but surprisingly the double has been done only two other times. Brad Keselowski won at Chicago in 2012 and Tony Stewart won there in 2011. Last years champ, Kyle Busch, finished ninth at Chicago to kick off the Chase. No non-Chase driver has ever won the Chase opener.
START POSITION NOT BIG DEAL
Only five of the 15 Chicago winners have started from a top-10 position while five winners have started outside the top-20, including Kyle Busch’s 2008 win when he started 32nd. Denny Hamlin started 29th last season and won there for the first time in his career.
LARSON IN GROOVE
It took Kyle Larson four seasons and 99 starts to finally win a Sprint Cup race and since doing so at Michigan three weeks ago, he’s gone on to finish third at Darlington and was runner-up last week at Richmond. And he really likes Chicagoland, too. He was third as a rookie in 2014 and seventh last season. Now that he’s finally won, the bookmakers can trust him after so many ‘almosts’ over the past three seasons. You won’t find 20-to-1 odds on him anymore. This week he’s 10-to-1 to win and his recent run is so respected that he’s also 10-to-1 to win the Chase, right up there with Hamlin and Johnson.
Micah Roberts, a former sports book director, has been been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1994. Follow on Twitter: @MicahRoberts7