With 13 wins in the opening 26 races of the season, Toyota’s Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing enter the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup as presumptive favorites to earn a second straight title. Those victories, spread among five drivers and peaking with Denny Hamlin‘s romp at Richmond International Raceway, give the manufacturer momentum over Ford and Chevrolet.
Just don’t hand Toyota the trophy just yet. If practice speeds are any indication, Chevy’s bowtie brigade is in a strong position to tie up the top spot outside Chicago.
Chase newcomer Kyle Larson led the way in each of Saturday’s two practice sessions at Chicagoland Speedway. Armed with three straight top-5 finishes, the third-year driver has nothing to lose, primed to contend for the win once again at a track where he’s tallied an average finish of fifth in his first two starts.
That Larson is showing speed is a great sign for his team (owned by both Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates), which has emerged as a trendy underdog pick. While the organization placed both of its drivers into the Chase — Larson with a win at Michigan International Speedway and Jamie McMurray on points — Larson has been the faster of the two by a noticeable margin and seems to be the group’s best shot at a title.
Now in his third year, Larson has proven capable of contending for wins and scoring good finishes when he’s at his best, tallying seven top 5s and 10 top 10s in the regular season. However, Larson’s struggles with inconsistency in the form of 10 finishes of 20th or worse mean that his team will likely need to capitalize on every great car to make a deep run inside the playoff.
Glancing past fastest laps and to the best 10 consecutive lap averages, a stat more indicative of long-run speed, shows that some of Chevy’s other Chase hopefuls may be contenders, too.
That list starts with the 2014 champion of the Cup Series. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Kevin Harvick is fast. Harvick’s No. 4 team has the best odds of beating TRD in the Chase simply because it’s been arguably the best team in the garage every season since Harvick joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Harvick sat inside of the top 10 in speed throughout the day, leading the field in both fastest lap and 10 consecutive lap average, and figures to be a factor come Sunday. He’s got two victories here and won the pole last fall before contact led to a crash that took him out.
While Harvick was quick, so was Hendrick Motorsports. Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott were the lone Chasers posting 10 consecutive lap averages that placed inside the top 10 in each of the weekend’s three practice sessions. Johnson topped the first and third practices in the metric; he finished second to Harvick in the middle session. Elliott, on the other hand, ended the first two sessions in eighth before slotting behind Johnson in second to end Happy Hour.
The results have to be comforting for the team going into Sunday’s Chase opener after their struggles over the summer. Typically one of NASCAR’s power performers, HMS hasn’t tallied a victory since Johnson’s second win of the year at Auto Club Speedway in March. Since then, the organization has turned tumultuous, recording its roughest finishes in at least a decade. Johnson went on a career-worst spree of six finishes outside the top 10 from June through July; Elliott’s early success faded into a horrid run that saw only two top 10s in the final three months; Dale Earnhardt, Jr. flat out disappeared from HMS with concussion-like symptoms and Kasey Kahne’s continual performance issues kept him out of the Chase for a second straight year.[yop_poll id=”18″]
HMS has only one win at Chicagoland, occurring 10 years ago with Jeff Gordon. Still, the organization has shown speed throughout the weekend and figures to have a shooting chance.
There’s also Kurt Busch, who’s proven to be a contender anywhere if circumstances fall his way. Busch completed all the laps through early August and has the consistency needed to win another championship. Even Austin Dillon, who finished no worse than 12th in 10 consecutive lap average in any of Friday’s sessions, could be a dark horse. Add that all up and Chevy should have at least four or five drivers battling with TRD and Team Penske throughout Chicagoland’s 400 miles.
But let’s not fool ourselves. TRD will still be strong, if not the outright favorites to win here as Hamlin did in 2015. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex, Jr. all produced one of the top five best speeds in one or more practices. Busch, the Chase’s top seed will sit on the pole after rain required NASCAR to set the grid by points.
Still, if practice means anything – and it feels like it should more than ever without teams needing to run in qualifying trim at any point – then Chevrolet has a fighting chance. It’s in strong position to score its first Chicagoland victory since Tony Stewart’s 2011 win and to take the fight to Toyota in Round 1.
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