Can a second straight fight to the finish save Chicagoland from future NASCAR extinction?
The name Chicagoland Speedway has always been a stretch. The much-maligned 1.5-mile oval, the site of Sunday's Camping World 400 is actually an hour's drive and some 45-plus miles from the center of Chicago. That’s like putting a stadium in Stamford, Connecticut, and calling it part of New York City.
But the hope when NASCAR added this track to its schedule in 2001 was they would be able to form a lasting connection to the third-biggest media market in the United States. As the sport broke free from its southern roots, what better place to establish fresh foundations than the largest city in the heart of the Midwest? This cookie-cutter track, along with Kansas Speedway was the Last of the Mohicans, part of stock car racing’s expansion into fresh markets in the late 1990s and early 2000s with larger, multi-purpose facilities that also came with plenty of grandstand seats.
There was just one problem with this master plan for growth: it never fully caught on. Unlike Kansas, which grew to include a second date, the crowds never justified additional expansion at Chicagoland. Fans complained about tickets that at one time forced you to buy an entire weekend's worth (three days of support races) in order to attend the big show on Sunday. Traffic in and out, like it is at many racetracks outside a major urban area, proved to be problematic. Even a move for several years from the summer to the first race of NASCAR’s playoffs in September failed to spark a larger crowd.
However, Chicagoland's biggest problem has always been simple: the racing was never really that good. After Kevin Harvick's spin-to-win race in 2002, a long list of monotonous performances followed. Occasionally, there would be a blip on the radar. A late caution for oil caused Kyle Busch to sneak past Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checkered finale in 2008. (Johnson has never won here). David Reutimann earned his second and final Cup Series win in 2010, a Cinderella-style upset. But by and large, many of the races turned into single-file snoozefests, a prime example of how NASCAR’s dreaded aerodynamic problems have taken center stage in recent years.
With major schedule changes coming, as late as early 2018 it felt like Chicagoland would be one of the first to get the axe. It's a conundrum for NASCAR as closing a place this large and so close to one of its coveted urban markets would be looked at as a major step back. But, behold; a funny thing happened to Chicagoland along the way to the guillotine. Aging pavement, two competitive drivers and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Cup Series booth debut produced the most exciting finish in the track’s ho-hum history last summer.
That slam-bang, spinout, full contact ending between Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson made "slide job" a NASCAR catchphrase for weeks. But it's also given the racetrack something to market after years of expectations falling short. That's why this weekend is so crucial for them; it's a second opportunity to build momentum. A new handling package makes that type of closing speed more difficult but the chance for a second photo finish is there.
This racetrack may not have many more moments to prove itself as 2021 schedule changes loom ever closer. Could last season finally be a turning point for a racetrack that’s been lost in the shuffle for nearly two decades?
We're about to find out.
Camping World 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Chicagoland Speedway (Joliet, Ill.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
After a sluggish start with his new team at Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex has simply caught fire. He fought off the sport's best road course racer, Kyle Busch, for a second straight victory at Sonoma that has him tied with Busch atop the Cup Series leaderboard with four wins. The difference between them is how quickly Truex has racked up that victory total. He's now 4-for-8, a scintillating win percentage of 50 percent, since breaking through at Richmond in mid-April.
Who's at the Back: Ryan Preece
Preece, the former superstar from NASCAR's Whelen Modified Series, was always going to have a tough transition to Cup. He's running with a JTG Daugherty Racing program that has struggled to move up within NASCAR's shrinking middle class.
But the poor performances are beginning to pile up nearly halfway through his freshman year on tour. Two top-10 results at the sport's largest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, are all he's got on the resume. There's no finish better than 16th otherwise and Preece is currently riding a slump of six straight races outside the top 20.
Preece's average finish of 23.2 is two positions lower than the man he replaced, AJ Allmendinger. And it's also well behind teammate Chris Buescher, still a longshot in his own right to make the postseason on points. Allmendinger received the lion's share of the blame with this program but maybe the driver wasn't as much of a problem as people thought?
Christopher Bell has been in the spotlight for all sorts of reasons this week. The NASCAR Xfinity Series regular became the first major domino to fall in NASCAR Silly Season when Joe Gibbs Racing picked up a one-year option on his contract. Bell is now signed through 2020 but has no idea if he'll be racing Xfinity or Cup next season. The logjam above him continues at JGR with three of their Cup drivers signed to long-term deals and a fourth, Erik Jones, insisting he's negotiating on a long-term contract extension.
But Bell's weekend quickly took a turn for the worse. He got disqualified from Saturday's Xfinity Series event after his car was found to be too low during post-race inspection. The resulting last-place finish marks the second time in two weeks (see: Ross Chastain at Iowa) that a driver from one of the sport’s top-tier divisions has been DQ'd.
FOX Sports was smiling for the first time in years when its final 2019 NASCAR TV ratings were released. The network had a 2 percent increase in viewership and 3 percent increase in Nielsen ratings over its 16-race schedule of Cup races this season, finally bottoming out after years of consistent decline. Their streaming and social numbers also bumped up significantly, an 80 percent increase to a total of 380 million digital consumption minutes.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup Series starts without a top-5 finish for Matt DiBenedetto before he finally broke through last weekend with a fourth-place run out in Sonoma.
Drivers to start all 16 Cup races this season. Half of them (50 percent) will wind up with at least a first-round postseason bid.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It seems like every week the picks here rotate between Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. This weekend, more than ever they're appetizing selections as not one qualified inside the top eight. It positions them for even more points in daily fantasy formats as position differential gets involved.
Your best bets are likely Kyle Busch, the race's defending winner, and Brad Keselowski. Busch has seven straight top-15 finishes, that victory included and has led laps in six straight years. Nearly 400 (399) of his 573 career laps led, in fact, have come within those last six starts.
Keselowski, though maybe the more consistent of the two. Eight straight top-10 finishes here have coincided with his transition into Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford. He’s an almost certain bet for a repeat performance.
The pressure is ratcheting up for Erik Jones on the same weekend Christopher Bell's contract extension was announced. Jthe only JGR Cup driver without a playoff spot assured; he’s winless since his lone Cup victory came July 2018 at Daytona. Can he build on a sixth-place finish earned at Chicagoland Speedway last summer? A 21st-place starting spot isn't ideal but Jones has clawed back from similar deficits this season.
Jimmie Johnson has his best starting spot since winning the pole at Texas back in April (fourth). That may limit his fantasy value somewhat but when the seven-time champion shows up with speed, you take notice. Chicagoland is one of the few tracks he’s never won at, making this yearly trek a bulls-eye for the No. 48 team and Johnson has come close as of late. He led 118 laps here as recently as 2017 and has a streak of eight straight top-15 finishes at the facility.
Paul Menard qualified a mediocre 25th for Sunday's race. But intermediates are his bread and butter and Team Penske's setup notes should help the Wood Brothers get competitive at Chicagoland. Menard won the pole here last year and ran 13th; he’s run no lower than 22nd here since 2011. A good value pick.
Michael McDowell produced the second-best qualifying run he's had in his NASCAR Cup Series career (seventh). Can he maintain that pace in Sunday's race? It's unlikely but a 21st-place finish in 2018 with Front Row Motorsports means McDowell will likely do enough to scrape by with a mid-level run. That may be worth filling out a roster with a price that’s probably the cheapest you'll have on a roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is far out front on Chicagoland odds, sitting as a 3/1 favorite. Kevin Harvick holds down the second spot while Martin Truex Jr. sits third at 6/1. Busch’s combatant in last year’s thrilling finish, Kyle Larson, sits at 10/1 odds.
What I Think
Team Penske keeps their intermediate mojo going after Joey Logano smoked the field at Michigan. This time, Brad Keselowski jumps to the front and joins championship rivals Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. atop the Cup Series charts with four victories this season.