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Jul 9, 2002 10:14 AM

After last week at Daytona, the Top 5 was jumbled considerably with top contenders Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart slipping mightily. Moving up to fourth with an excellent second place finish at Daytona was Rusty Wallace.

The odds-on favorite to win the driving championship is still Marlin at even money, but the chase for the title is shaping up to be one of the most congested in history.

This week the series moves to Chicago. After having only one race at the Chicagoland facility in Joliet, finding a ticket to this year’s race is equal in difficulty to the glory years of Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Auto racing in the Midwest has always held a strong fan base because of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it wasn’t until NASCAR rolled into the heartland that the true numbers have been accounted.

The additions of Chicagoland and Kansas Speedway and all the soldout events show that the region may be hungrier for racing than any portion of the country. Most Winston Cup races are sold out, but the difference between the two Midwest tracks is that every event (including NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck series and Indy Racing League) is packed. The IRL doesn’t do well anywhere else.

Further proof is that Chicagoland has sold out all six of the 75,000 seats available for 2002 events which says a lot considering they only get one Cup race a year.

Kevin Harvick won the inaugural event last season. Passing was going to be difficult since this was a new track with fresh asphalt and very little rubber off the tires had been laid. Thus, only one groove around the track. Chances are that passing will be a bit easier this year, but not much.

As we’ve seen with tracks similar to Chicagoland, such as Las Vegas, longevity of the facility doesn’t necessarily produce great racing. The race will basically come down to pure horsepower and luck.

The best way to handicap the race coming in is to first look at the top speeds at this year’s Las Vegas race during practices, qualifying, and the actual event. The same set-ups for Vegas due to the similar banking and configuration will apply for most teams.

The second recommendation will be to pay close attention to all the practices prior to the race, particularly Saturday’s happy hour. It’s probable that the winning driver on Sunday will be found in the top five times of the happy hour session.

Two Young Guns immediately come to the forefront, Ryan Newman (18-1) and Kurt Busch (8-1). Both had fantastic runs in Las Vegas and while Busch has proven to be the more seasoned of the two, Newman has proven himself due and capable on these type of tracks.

For the rookie Newman, this will be his first competition at Chicagoland. Busch finished an impressive eighth last year in his first campaign. Newman has been just a level below Busch on the consistency factor this season. Busch has been close on the similar tracks of Las Vegas, California, and Michigan.

Points leader Marlin (8-1) can claim two wins in the last year. Marlin won last fall at Michigan and also breezed to victory at Las Vegas with Newman and Busch hot on his heels. The quality third place performance by Marlin at Daytona last week showed that he isn’t going to give up the top slot in the standings easily.

Jimmie Johnson (8-1) hasn’t been talked about much of late but that should be expected considering the rookie is coming off back to back driver-savvy tracks like Sears Point and Daytona.

When it comes to all out horsepower performance over the course of 2002, Johnson is hands down the winner. Johnson won at California and also has in his stable of cars the one that Jeff Gordon won with at Las Vegas last year.

The Yates veteran duo of Ricky Rudd (12-1) and Dale Jarrett (8-1) have always been primed for these types of tracks. Early on in 2002, there was an apparent problem with both teams, but over the past two months each has claimed victory and showed signs of dominance.

Never say never with a talent like Jeff Gordon (8-1), but 25 straight races may just as well be never. That is the span of races Gordon has gone without victory, the longest drought of his career. Still, Gordon is only 150 points from the lead in 5th place and should be among the Top 10 finishes in Chicagoland.


1) #12 R. Newman 18-1

2) #97 K. Busch 8-1

3) #49 J. Johnson8-1

4) #28 R. Rudd 12-1

5) #40 S. Marlin 8-1