Chicago just isn’t Joliet to this race fan

Aug 16, 2005 2:58 AM

CHICAGO — Two weekends ago I found viewing NASCAR quite easy in the "Big Easy" This past weekend here made me realize that, despite NASCAR’s great nationwide popularity and having its own tracks sell out each year in nearby Joliet, the stock cars are still small potatoes in the Windy City.

As the race time neared I searched up and down the streets of Chicago looking for a place to view it. I could have stayed in the hotel room, but I wanted to get a vibe for the event in another environment. As my poor luck would have it, the first place White Sox were playing the first place Red Sox at the same time the NASCAR race from Watkins Glen was scheduled to start.

Also, the final round of the PGA Championship was on, which further placed NASCAR down the viewing chain. Fortunately I was able to find an establishment that had no one it with one TV that had terrible reception and a poor tint/color ratio. I even got the roll of the eyes from the waiter when I asked to have the channel changed.

The actual race was rather uneventful and was really over before it started. Tony Stewart just crushed the field with by far the most dominant car on the track. But, I couldn’t figure out why the great sports fans of Chicago could care less about the nation’s fastest growing sport? Then I pieced it all together. Chicago has so much going on and families have lived in the city for generations.

The White Sox, Cubs, Blackhawks, and Bears have been around forever and that’s plenty excitement for most. This town just lost its starting quarterback for the season. Chicago fans are also bracing for a White Sox collapse and, after taking 3-of- 4 from the hated Cardinals, are actually talking about the Cubs making the playoffs.

There is just too much drama already in most of their sports lives to allow NASCAR into it, which is quite understandable.

In transient cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix in the West, there really is no existing tie to anything, so NASCAR has become very popular with fans opening up to the new sport. Down South, it’s a generational thing. It’s just part of growing up.

Now, something I know would get Chicago into NASCAR is if the fans won some money on it in Las Vegas betting a few drivers. That would hook them in a second. As years pass and the Joliet race becomes more popular into the actual Chicago city, and not just the outskirts of southern Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana, I may see a change in my next visit. Nevertheless, Chicago is my kind of town.

This week’s Nextel Cup race takes us back to Michigan for its second stop of the season. There are only four events left in the dash for the Chase to make NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. With Stewart winning again, he separated himself even further from the rest and made the hopes of those attempting to get in bleak.

Especially, Jeff Gordon.

Gordon did a valiant job finishing where he did at the Glen after all the mishaps, but he had to better — as in at least top 3. Now he needs drivers like Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, Elliott Sadler, and Dale Jarrett to struggle over the final four races for any real chance. It’s possible, but very doubtful at this point that Gordon will make the Chase.

Even without Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr going for the championship, it still will be exciting and create great ratings for NBC. It’s not like Gordon and Junior won’t be racing. They’ll still be there, just attempting to get wins. It’s no different from any other year prior to 2004 when we knew just about every driver, but maybe two, had no shot at winning the title.

For this week’s actual race itself, we look no further than the slumping Greg Biffle (6-1). The last time Biffle won a race, it was at Michigan. Since then, he’s been anything but a contender for the championship with only one top 5 finish and several really bad results. Still, on these types of tracks, Biffle and his team have the car to beat. Of his five wins this season, two are on the nearly identical sister tracks of California and Michigan. Until he fails with that car on this track, it’s hard to bet against him.

That is unless you are Tony Stewart (6-1) and have one of the hottest runs in NASCAR history going. Stewart is listed as a co-favorite in this race, having won five of the last seven races on the schedule. Not to mention the last time at Michigan, he finished 2nd to Biffle. That began the run going and led to a win the following week at Sonoma.

He’s been on fire ever since. It makes me wonder how this team can just find themselves in the middle of a season and then go on to win at the same proportions, if not better, than the Jeff Gordon machine of 1998. Whatever it is, they’ll keep it to themselves, as evidenced by the still awful Bobby Labonte, Stewart’s Joe Gibbs racing teammate.

The other candidates to keep an eye on to win are all the Roush drivers. Even Kurt Busch (8-1) should be considered to win despite how that team is feeling right now. I don’t know what the personal relationship is between Jack Roush and the Busch family, but Roush has been given the slip move by both Busch boys. It has left Roush empty handed and angry each time. Seems there may be a bit more gratitude towards the NASCAR owner that gave both these Las Vegas drivers their big opportunity outside the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring. Business is business, I guess.

Others that are bound to run well are Joe Nemechek (20-1), Ryan Newman (12-1) and Jamie McMurray (25-1).