The Chase Heats up at Chicagoland

Sixteen drivers, ten races, four rounds, one champion. The Chase is on.

This weekend at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway, the 2016 NASCAR playoffs officially begin. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 (not a joke) goes green just past 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 18 from Joliet, Ill on NBCSN.

As the regular season was wrapped up last weekend at Richmond, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray clinched their Chase spots based on points. Meanwhile, the other 13 drivers already had their tickets punched via wins in the first 26 races. So as the playoffs arrive, drivers will have shorter tempers and more on the line.

Who’s ready? Toyota is.

They have five drivers (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.) eligible to win the championship. They have been the team to beat all season long, and they are the odds on favorites to make it to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship four and ultimately win the championship.

Someone who’s not is the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson – or so it seems. Johnson is on pace for career lows in almost every statistical category, including top tens, top fives, laps led, etc. Whether it be multiple speeding penalties per race, unapproved body modifications, or them just plain lacking speed, the Hendrick Motorsports six-time champion doesn’t look like himself on the racetrack, and he knows it. But I wouldn’t ever doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team when the pressure is on. They have six championships for a reason.

Hamlin is the defending winner of this race, and is my pick to win it again. Coming off his win last weekend, he has the most momentum in the Sprint Cup garage, and is also a popular pick to win the championship. He is the only driver who has qualified for every Chase since it’s inception in 2006, when Hamlin was also a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

The entire Chase Grid can be seen here, and I revealed mine on this week’s episode of victory lane. But I’ll save you the time (but please listen), and show you my Chase grid.

I’ll spare you the time of going into analysis of each of my picks. But you can listen to those in victory lane. Who knows? I could be totally wrong. Heck, I probably will be.

But I know one thing for sure: this Sunday at Chicagoland and the nine race weekends to follow will be ones to remember for a long time to come, because the Chase is on.