The NASCAR Cup Series celebrates Independence Day weekend at Road America for a second straight year. The Kwik Trip 250 on Sunday, July 3 kicks off the first of three road course events during a nine-race stretch to end the 2022 regular season.
That's the most of any track type, providing hope to underdogs like Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell they could build toward an upset after strong performances last month at Sonoma Raceway. Other winless drivers this season like Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, and Martin Truex Jr. finished inside the top 10 at Road America last year.
To do so, they'll all need to find a way around a red-hot Chase Elliott. This race's defending champ is also the most recent Cup winner, solidifying his hold atop the point standings after scooting past Joe Gibbs Racing at Nashville Superspeedway. Road America was the last time Elliott won on a road course, charging up from his 34th starting spot to lead by lap 38 of a 62-lap event.
It was a master class in how to pass on Road America's expansive 4.048-mile layout. In fact, Elliott was just one of several drivers who found themselves slicing through the field with ease: third-place finisher Kyle Busch started dead last (40th) and sixth-place finisher Chase Briscoe came all the way from 35th.
The ability for comers and goers made Road America's return a popular one, the first Cup race here since 1956 drawing a crowd estimated to be well over 100,000. The question is whether that's enough to keep this event on the schedule over the long term. It's no secret NASCAR is looking to add a Chicago street race to its schedule, perhaps as early as 2023, and that could make it difficult to keep both.
That means the racing and the drama this weekend could play a large role in determining Road America's long-term place on the schedule going forward. How will NASCAR's Next Gen chassis perform after two wildly different races thus far in 2022?
Trackhouse Racing Team has won them both, providing drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez with their first Cup victories. But while Chastain's win was one of the best finishes in recent NASCAR history, Suárez presided over a snoozefest, cruising out front in Sonoma by almost four seconds.
Will TRT go 3-for-3? Can Elliott climb back to the top on a road course? Or will an unfamiliar name wind his way to the front at NASCAR's largest racetrack on the schedule?
Kwik Trip 250
Date: Sunday, July 3
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Road America (Plymouth, Wis.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Chase Elliott
Several rain delays at Nashville worked to Elliott's advantage, his car's handling improving dramatically as the race finished under nighttime conditions. After Joe Gibbs Racing led 240 of the first 244 laps, Elliott snuck his way past Kyle Busch, then pulled away out front to earn his second win of the 2022 Cup season.
Both of them have come for Elliott in the past seven races, each one coming on concrete ovals. In between, the No. 9 Chevrolet has flashed some inconsistency, but his point lead has still grown to 30 over Ross Chastain with nine races left.
Who's at the Back: Alex Bowman
A wreck at the hands of Corey LaJoie at Nashville was just the latest setback for Bowman and his No. 48 team. It's his second DNF in the last six races as the Las Vegas Motor Speedway winner has struggled to establish consistency since locking up his playoff spot for Hendrick Motorsports.
In 17 races this year, Bowman has led just twice: that Las Vegas victory and for two laps at Dover Motor Speedway in May. Compare that to his three teammates who have combined to lead 1,356 laps.
Tyler Reddick confirmed Saturday he'll be competing with Richard Childress Racing next season. RCR held the option on Reddick, who's taken the No. 8 Chevrolet to the fringes of playoff contention despite a number of hard-luck finishes this year that have cost him a first career Cup win.
Chris Buescher's crew chief was just the latest to undergo a suspension for a loose wheel that fell off on the racetrack. Scott Graves, the head wrench for the No. 17 Ford of RFK Racing, will miss the next four races along with his jackman and rear tire changer. It's the 12th such penalty in the Cup Series this season as teams continue to struggle to adjust to the new Next Gen wheels.
Trackhouse Racing Team owner Justin Marks is ending his NASCAR retirement one week after returning to racing in the SRX Series at Stafford Motor Speedway. Marks will be entering the Mid-Ohio race with Niece Motorsports, the track where he earned his lone NASCAR win in the sport's top three divisions (Xfinity Series, 2016).
NASCAR by the Numbers
The gap between Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick for the final NASCAR playoff spot. Keselowski has only scored 235 points the whole season, good for 30th in the standings after a 100-point penalty assessed earlier this year.
Time Chase Elliott has won back-to-back races in his Cup career: the final two races of 2020 (Martinsville, Phoenix) on route to capturing the season championship.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to ignore Chase Elliott since he'll be starting this weekend's race up front. One option, though is to go rogue, hoping Elliott has mechanical problems or other issues during the race while stacking your roster with good (but less expensive) replacements.
Two of those are easy to pick out: Ross Chastain and William Byron. Chastain won the first Next Gen road course race at Circuit of the Americas and finished a strong seventh at this race last season; starting 12th gives him the potential for additional positional differential points.
Then, there's Byron, starting a distant 29th here a year after he won the pole and led 15 laps during the race. For the last year or two, Byron has been knocking on the door with fast cars on road courses only to not wind up with the finishes he deserves (the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL comes to mind). At some point, he's going to have a breakthrough, and fastest lap bonuses could be in your future with a driver that needs to come through the field in a hurry.
Christopher Bell knows the pressure is on with the number of winners in the Cup Series this season. The Road America runner-up from last year was third at Circuit of the Americas in March and won on a road course as recently as February 2021 (Daytona International Speedway). Even a drive up inside the top 5 would be solid for your roster with Bell starting a middling 16th.
Aric Almirola is not known as a road course racer. In fact, he's never earned a top-5 finish at a right-turn track in his Cup career. But a 14th at Road America is proof he's capable of moving up through the field a bit, his +5 position differential offering hope he can pull a repeat on Sunday while fighting for a playoff spot.
Joey Hand? Yes, that's the guy. Qualifying ninth in a Rick Ware Racing car is quite an accomplishment for the underfunded operation; it also minimizes some of his value in certain fantasy formats. But following through with a top-10 finish would be a Herculean effort for this road course specialist who also has the benefit of coming dirt cheap.
Ty Dillon does have some past experience at Road America, coming home 26th with the now-inactive Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota. Driving the No. 42 for Petty GMS Motorsports this year, he's done a great job bringing the car home in one piece and has an opportunity to simply survive his way to a top-20 finish. Don't be fooled by that poor qualifying effort (30th); I expect Dillon to move up slowly and steadily.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Chase Elliott a strong favorite to win this weekend at +500. Kyle Larson sits right behind him at +700, followed by Ross Chastain at +800.
Your best longshot pick might be someone like Michael McDowell, a surprising third at Sonoma Raceway last month. He's sitting at +5000 after qualifying sixth as the 2021 Daytona 500 winner seeks a second career win to add to his resume.
What I Think
I think Road America is hitting Chase Elliott at just the right time. He cruises to the victory from the pole as the No. 9 team starts establishing themselves as the favorite to take home their second Cup championship in the last three seasons.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.