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NASCAR: Analyzing the Chase schedule

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We’re still seeing fallout from the penalties leveled against Michael Waltrip Racing in the wake of their attempt to manipulate the outcome of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Va., but NASCAR issued the official results of the race Tuesday afternoon, meaning the case is closed. With that in mind, we continue our Chase coverage by looking at the 10 races that make up the playoff schedule and which drivers need to do well at each track to buoy their title hopes.

Race #1

Chicagoland Speedway (Geico 400)

1.5-mile tri-oval

Once again, the Windy City will kick off the Chase in what’s shaping up to be magnificent weekend weather-wise. Chicago is one of the more unique 1.5-mile tracks in that there really isn’t a straightaway to be found, due to a backstretch that is laid out as one long left hand swerve leading into turn three. The surface at the track is finally beginning to weather and show a little age, making it bumpier and slicker, and giving drivers a few more options in terms of which lane to run to find speed.

Chasers to watch: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch

Race #2

New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Sylvania 300)

1-mile oval 

In week two of the Chase, we go from the banks of Chicago to the relative flatness (less than 10 degree banking all the way around) of New Hampshire. The oval shape of NHMS gives the track the feeling of two drag races down the front and back straightaways, making acceleration out the turns crucial. At the same time, handling is critical to get the car turning well through the center of the corners, forcing drivers to stay on the brakes for as short a time as possible before getting back to the gas. Brian Vickers took the checkered flag at the first NHMS race of 2013.

Chasers to watch: Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch

Race #3

Dover International Speedway (AAA 400)

1-mile oval

Another 1-mile oval comprises the third race of the Chase, but unlike New Hampshire, Dover is high banked and blistering fast. The narrowness of the track makes it dangerous to start at the back of the field, lest you get caught up in a crash with nowhere else to go. Jimmie Johnson came ever so close to winning the first race of 2013 at Dover, but was penalized for jumping the restart and Tony Stewart went on to win.

Chasers to watch: Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch

Race #4

Kansas Speedway (Hollywood Casino 400)

1.5-mile tri-oval

Intermediate tracks dominate the Chase schedule, and no driver who doesn’t fare well on the 1.5-mile speedways will win the Chase. Kansas is one of the flatter versions of the intermediate tracks, but continues to fare well from a recent repave, which has made for insanely fast speeds. Matt Kenseth notched one of his five victories at the first race in 2013 at Kansas, and Kasey Kahne earned one of the three second place finishes he’s had to Kenseth.

Chasers to watch: Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson

Race #5

Charlotte Motor Speedway (Bank of America 500)

1.5-mile tri-oval

Charlotte is the only night race in the Chase, but that anomaly is countered by the fact that it’s another race on a 1.5-mile track. Unlike Kansas, Chicagoland, and the season-ending event at Homestead, the Charlotte race is a 500-mile event, putting engines at further stress and throwing a different wrench into the varying strategies teams must decide upon to win. Kevin Harvick won the first race of the year at Charlotte, and Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star race at the track in May.

Chasers to watch: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle

Race #6

Talladega Superspeedway (Camping World RV Sales 500)

2.6-mile tri-oval

Talladega is the wild card of the Chase. Pack racing makes it a near guarantee that crashes will happen, they’ll take out a bunch of cars, and many folks will caught up in it by no fault of their own. The typical view of the Chase is that drivers get one mulligan for a bad performance throughout their Chase run, and many drivers often have to use it here. David Ragan won in a major upset at the first race at Talladega this year.

Chasers to watch: Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer

Race #7

Martinsville Speedway (Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500)

0.5-mile oval

The only thing to say here is beware of Jimmie Johnson. He dominated earlier this year, and he usually does.

Chasers to watch: Jimmie Johnson, Jimmie Johnson, and Jimmie Johnson

Race #8

Texas Motor Speedway (AAA Texas 500)

1.5-mile oval

Texas has played to host to some great battles in recent years, from Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart duking it out in 2011 to last year’s side-by-side battle in the closing laps between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. At this point in the Chase, we usually know who the championship battle is down to, making the tension even higher. Kyle Busch earned one of his four victories here earlier in the year.

Chasers to watch: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano

Race #9

Phoenix International Raceway (Advocare 500)

1-mile tri-oval

The scene of last year’s scuffle between Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, Phoenix has become a battleground that must be survived to win the championship. Ever since the track was re-configured in 2011, drivers now try to shoot across the bottom in the track’s dogleg, taking a shortcut of sorts, before roaring back onto the track in turn three. It’s made for some dramatic moments, and a few wrecks, and with the Chase on the line, it’ll be even more treacherous. Carl Edwards won here in the second race of the 2013 season.

Chasers to watch: Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson

Race #10

Homestead-Miami Speedway (Ford Ecoboost 400)

1.5-mile oval

It all comes down to Miami. The Sprint Cup series, as always, makes its only trip to the track for the season finale, forcing drivers to finish the championship battle at a track they haven’t seen all year. The fast way around the 1.5-mile oval is usually in the top lane, dangerously close to the wall, forcing competitors to flirt with disaster for 400 miles in their pursuit of the championship. It’s a hell of a way to end a season, and 2013 will be no different.

Chasers to watch: Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne