After a flurry of changes to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule, just one new racetrack emerged on the docket for 2022. World Wide Technology Raceway will make its debut at the sport’s highest level with the inaugural running of Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 presented by TicketSmarter.
But this uniquely shaped 1.25-mile oval, located at the Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, just outside St. Louis, has hosted other forms of NASCAR competition before. For 13 years, the sport’s Xfinity Series raced here, ending its tenure with a notorious chapter in the Brad Keselowski – Carl Edwards feud back in 2010. Edwards spun Keselowski out on the frontstretch to win a race that June, escalating a back and forth that had been bubbling for over a year-plus.
The Camping World Truck Series also held races here, from 1998 until the track shut down unexpectedly at the end of 2010. Once new management reopened the facility, the Trucks returned some four years later and allowed some current Cup full-timers to cut their teeth winning races here: Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell, to name a few. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch also found success at WWTR during their time moonlighting in lower divisions.
The track itself is a mishmash of three others on the NASCAR circuit. Turns 1 and 2 have an ultra-tight radius; some compare it to the flat one-mile oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway despite its 11 degrees of banking. Turns 3 and 4 are shaped similar to Phoenix Raceway, banked at nine degrees, while the egg-shaped design overall makes it feel like a smaller clone of Darlington Raceway.
Like any new race on the circuit, there’s excitement surrounding the event and grandstand tickets are already sold out. Will the racing match the hype? That’s admittedly a cause for concern. The last two Truck races here have averaged just six lead changes, Sheldon Creed dominating the event in 2021 by leading 142 of a possible 161 laps.
NASCAR’s Next Gen chassis, coming off the most successful Coca-Cola 600 in almost 20 years, does seem primed to beat expectations nearly everywhere we go. You’d expect some drivers in need of a win to make the playoffs, like Wallace, could run well here based on past experience.
Only 300 miles means a short race, just 240 laps which makes track position crucial and limits recovery time. The first stage is only 45 laps and could be completed in less than 25 minutes without a caution flag. After a long series of pit road mistakes impacted contenders at Charlotte, it’s clear there’s no margin for error for crews this weekend.
Will this track in Gateway, Illinois provide the gateway to future NASCAR success in this market? In the yearly Athlon Sports magazine, our anonymous Scouting Report was more skeptical than I expected. “I’m not really excited to go there,” said one of our go-to crew chiefs inside the garage. “I don’t think it’s a nice facility. I don’t think it’s a great race even for the Truck Series, which tells me it’s going to be worse for the Cup Series.”
Early returns after Friday’s practice were also less than encouraging. “Passing is going to be very rare on Sunday,” Ryan Blaney said after he posted the second-fastest time. “That is the best way I can put it. If you get behind somebody, you are stuck and can’t go anywhere.”
But there’s a long time between Friday and Sunday. We’ll see if the track, other drivers and this chassis are primed to prove the naysayers wrong.
Enjoy Illinois 300 presented by TicketSmarter
Date: Sunday, July 5
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: World Wide Technology Raceway (Madison, Ill.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin won a race of Coca-Cola 600 Survivor as nearly all contenders around him fell by the wayside. Chase Briscoe seemed primed for the win down the stretch before spinning out in a failed bid for the lead, creating NASCAR Overtime.
Hamlin was among a number of drivers who pitted for fresh tires, creating a wild restart where Austin Dillon charged to the front and challenged Kyle Larson. But Dillon slid his No. 3 in front before he was clear of Larson’s No. 5, triggering another major wreck. Hamlin was one of a handful of lead-lap drivers to slip through unscathed, holding off Kyle Busch to earn his first-ever Coca-Cola 600 victory in 17 career starts.
Who's at the Back: Austin Dillon
A driver who’s built his career around consistency and finishing races suddenly seems to be crashing a lot. Dillon’s Charlotte wreck was his fourth in 14 starts, leaving him one short of a career high with well over half a season left to go.
Now sitting 15th in points, Dillon finds himself in a familiar spot: knocked outside the top 16 due to the fact he hasn’t won a race. Some growing desperation over a winless streak that stretches back to 2020 may have contributed to the go-for-broke move in Charlotte that backfired.
Just days after a scary flip at Charlotte, Chris Buescher will sit out this weekend’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway after testing positive for COVID-19. Truck Series regular Zane Smith has been tapped to drive Buescher’s No. 17 for RFK Racing, making his Cup Series debut.
Hendrick Motorsports is adding a NASCAR Xfinity Series program for its drivers to moonlight in select events. Kyle Larson, William Byron and Alex Bowman will run one race each with Larson debuting the new No. 17 team at Road America next month.
Martin Truex Jr. made some news Friday when he admitted he still doesn’t know if he’ll return to Cup to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023. “I think about it every day,” Truex said. “We’re working on it… it’s a big decision. A lot of factors.” The 2017 Cup champion says he’ll make a decision on his racing future within the next few weeks.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Length (in miles) of the 2022 Coca-Cola 600, making it the longest race by distance in NASCAR history. The event took some five hours, 13 minutes to complete.
Laps led by Kevin Harvick in 14 starts this season. 11 of those came in just one race, Atlanta back in March.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
You can’t ignore Team Penske after the organization went 1-2-3 during Friday’s practice. Joey Logano last ran here at age 18, coming in second during a NASCAR Xfinity Series event back in 2008. Apparently, he remembers a little something from way-back-when and could be a solid pick despite two wrecks in his last five Cup starts.
Ryan Blaney should be next on your list as a driver who has the second-best average start in the series at 8.6. In a race where track position could prove crucial, you want to keep your eggs in the basket of a driver likely to start out front in clean air.
If you don’t trust Penske, Kyle Busch is not a bad bet after a runner-up finish in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Busch’s resume here includes a NASCAR Xfinity Series win and he’s red hot in Cup, posting four podium finishes in the last six points-paying events.
Chase Briscoe won at Phoenix earlier this year, a track with some similar characteristics to WWTR. Despite his late-race Charlotte spin, the No. 14 Ford somehow finished fourth, his best run since that victory two months ago as he looks to return some level of consistency to his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Can Bubba Wallace turn a tough season around at 23XI Racing? A promising run at Charlotte was cut short by a midrace crash, the second time in three races he’s failed to finish. In the only NASCAR start he has at Gateway, Wallace won driving Kyle Busch’s truck during a magical 2014 season that catapulted his career.
Cole Custer showed some signs of life at Charlotte, in position for his first top 10 of the year until he was collected in that Dillon overtime wreck. While practice times for Gateway were underwhelming, Custer did earn a win here during his time in Trucks and a mid-pack starting spot could provide you with a nice position differential bonus.
Todd Gilliland is another driver who struggled in WWTR practice I expect to do much better during the race. Earning two finishes of 16th or better in his last three Cup starts, this rookie is starting to find a rhythm along with Front Row Motorsports teammate Michael McDowell (two top 10s during the same stretch). Either one’s not a bad selection for Sunday.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds post Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch atop the list again this week: both are +800 heading into the weekend at WWTR. Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin sit at +900, slightly ahead of a cluster of drivers sitting at +1000.
Looking for a longshot? Erik Jones, fifth-best in Friday’s practice, is sitting at +6000.
What I Think
Ryan Blaney is the best driver this year who hasn’t won. That changes Sunday with a strong performance at WWTR, delivering in the first NASCAR Cup race at the facility while ensuring all three Team Penske drivers are locked into the playoffs before summertime hits.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.