2017 playoffs kick off at Chicagoland

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JOLIET, Ill. – After months of talk about playoff points, stages, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement and MTJ’s ridiculous regular season, it’s finally time to crown a champion.

Chicagoland Speedway will play host to the playoff-opening race this weekend, the Tale of the Turtles 400. Ten more races, and we’ll find out who wins the 2017 championship.

WHAT: Tale of the Turtles 400 (400.5 miles, 267 laps. Stages of 80, 80 & 107 laps, respectively)
WHEN: Sunday, September 15, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 3:43 p.m. ET
WHERE: Chicagoland Speedway, 1.5-mile tri-oval located in Joliet, Illinois
FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch (7/2) and Kyle Larson (5/1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Martin Truex Jr. wound up in Victory Lane, earning his third win of the season. Truex Jr. survived an overtime finish to do so. The win ended up being deemed encumbered after the No. 78 failed post-race LIS, along with eventual 12th-place finisher Jimmie Johnson.


THE LINEUP

Kyle Busch earned his series-leading seventh pole of the season, posting a lap almost three tenths faster than the second-place starter.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Busch’s fast lap was clocked in at 187.963 mph (28.729 seconds) around Chicagoland Speedway in his No. 18 Skittles Sweet Heat Toyota Camry. The pole was the 26th of his career and his third at the 1.5-mile Joliet tri-oval in the last four years.

Toyota drivers Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will start second and third, with Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top five. Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Matt Kenseth completed the top 10 starters, with Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney rolling off 11th and 12th. Jimmie Johnson (14th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (15th), Ryan Newman (16th) and Kurt Busch (17th) are the other playoff drivers who did not make the final round of qualifying. Kasey Kahne was eliminated in the first round and will start in 25th.

Some other notable starters include Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 20th and Danica Patrick in 22nd. Erik Jones qualified 24th, but will start at the rear due to changing tires after a spin in qualifying.


PLAYOFFS?

Yes, Jim Mora! Playoffs! Actual playoffs! They’re here!

We have the 16 drivers that will be contending for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. But the real question is can anybody slow down the freight train that is Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team?

MTJ has built up 53 playoff points that he will carry throughout each round of the playoffs, meaning he all but has a spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway clinched. His Toyota teammate of Kyle Busch is also a popular pick to make it to the championship four, along with Kyle Larson. But the fourth and final driver is where it gets a little more difficult.

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Will it be Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion who always finds a way to flip the switch from running “okay,” to contending for victories? What about Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion who has been consistent all season long? Or Brad Keselowski, the Blue Deuce driver who is never afraid to stir the pot? Or someone coming out of the woodworks like Ryan Newman in 2014, or a complete surprise altogether like Austin Dillon or Jamie McMurray?

Be sure to follow me on Twitter to see my playoff grid when I print it out and fill it out. For all I know, my final four could be completely wrong and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins it all. Never know!


DRAMA ALREADY?

We haven’t even turned a lap in the 2017 playoffs, yet we’re already being entertained by two rivals in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series that also happen to be superstars.

It started on Twitter, and then it all snowballed. Long story short: Brad Keselowski commented on Toyota’s dominance, insinuating that they have an illegal advantage speed-wise, after they swept the top four practice spots. Then, Kyle Busch told him to “STFU,” which, of course, sent social media into a frenzy.

Denny Hamlin and Cole Pearn also got into the action on Twitter, basically telling Keselowski to deal with it. After being bombarded with questions regarding the mini Twitter war that occurred due to his tweet, the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford was playing defense.

“Well, I mean, they’ve got a lot going for them right now,” Keselowski told NBCSN prior to his qualifying run at Chicagoland. “It’s not really fair of me to say where that (advantage) is, that’s really more NASCAR’s and the team’s job, but it is still obvious. You can pretty much BS your way through it any way you want, it’s there. And we know we’re going to have to out-execute them, and we need a little bit of luck, because right now their cars have way more speed.”

The two drivers’ history dates back years to various on-track incidents. Most recently, the two tangled at Watkins Glen earlier this season. And when asked about Keselowski’s comments and complaints regarding Toyota, Busch didn’t sugarcoat his feelings.

“Who cares, he’s an idiot anyways, we all know that,” Busch said in the media center after winning the pole for the Tale of the Turtles 400. “If you ask Brad, he can fix the world’s problems, that’s all there is to it. It’s just a fact of the matter that no one else is doing anything, they’re putting their head down and going to work and he thinks that somehow big brother is going to come up and help him.”


SILLY SEASON NEVER STOPS

This past week was a busy one in the NASCAR world, to say the least.

On Tuesday morning, Smithfield Foods, who has been with Richard Petty Motorsports for the past five seasons, announced they will be leaving the team at season’s end and head over to Stewart-Haas Racing. They did not announce what car or driver would be sponsored by them.

Then in the afternoon, Danica Patrick announced on her Facebook page that she would not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next season. She said she has no current plans in terms of next season, but cited a lack of sponsorship as the driving force in why she was out of a ride.

A few minutes later, word trickled out that Aric Almirola would not be returning to Richard Petty Motorsports next season. Almirola and RPM later confirmed the report with a formal announcement. It hasn’t been declared where the driver of the No. 43 will end up in 2018.

With all that being said, we kind of saw all this coming. Smithfield has been rumored to leave RPM for awhile, and so was Almirola. And we knew that Patrick’s performance and lack of sponsorship could only take her so far. The question now: where do they all end up?

The popular opinion in the garage is that Almirola will follow Smithfield to SHR and take Patrick’s No. 10 ride, Patrick will end her NASCAR career and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace will head to the No. 43 (if he has sponsorship). Plus, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth still are unemployed.


PREDICTION

Believe it or not, I’m human too, and I forgot to mention who I am picking to win the Tale of the Turtles 400 on this week’s episode of Victory Lane. But I’ll take Martin Truex Jr. to win because—well—he’s Martin Truex Jr. and that No. 78 team is the best in the sport right now.

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