NASCAR has found sweet
home in Chicago

Jul 6, 2004 4:03 AM

Believe it or not, this is the fourth annual race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. Chicago is the ideal example of how far the far sport has come. If there was any city, other than Manhattan, that epitomized everything NASCAR isn’t, it is Chicago. We’re talking about Polish sausage, the Bears and Cubs. Stock cars just don’t fit into that equation.

But four years later, NASCAR is the hottest ticket in town. Chicago’s track layout is in the mold of many other cookie cutter tracks on the circuit, with the exception being that it is slightly more banked. For like instances in handicapping the race, you could look at a cross between Vegas, Michigan, and California. The track has a lot of room. Because not enough races have been run, the track hasn’t had much chance to get rubber laid down to establish multiple grooves.

Wagers early in the week will get you the best odds. After qualifying and practice sessions, the drivers up near the top will likely be the best during the race and they’re odds will drop dramatically.

Kevin Harvick (10-1) won the first two races at Chicago and it was somewhat surprising. He had great times in practice, but didn’t perform as well at similar tracks.

Last year, Ryan Newman (7-1) took the checkers in a powerful display of horsepower. In Newman’s case, it came with little surprise because he always does well on these types of tracks. Newman is the co-favorite this week and we expect him to go on a tear. In both of Newman’s starts at Chicago, he has two Top 5 finishes.

Jeff Gordon (7-1) has won the last two races on this year’s schedule. Gordon has finished in the Top 5 twice at Chicago, including last year’s fourth place finish. Chicago is also one of the few tracks that Gordon has yet to taste victory. Believe me, this is something he marks on the chalkboard and is discussed. With the way he’s going now, It wouldn’t be a shock to see him win this week. For the second time this year, he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr (10-1) in a restrictor plate race last week at Daytona. Very impressive!

Gordon’s teammate and current points leader Jimmie Johnson (7-1) is in many ways like Newman. He does extremely well on wide open tracks and has a quality car that can keep him up front for the entirety of a race. The greatest thing about the new points system is that you won’t see the drivers racing for points.

In years past, we’ve seen drivers constantly play the points game and not race hard to the finish for fear of losing ground to the drivers behind them. This year, it hasn’t been a problem because the lead doesn’t matter. Johnson has successfully made daring moves several times this year that we would have never seen the likes of Bobby Labonte or Matt Kenseth do in their championship runs. The new points system has made the sport better for the fans.

Tony Stewart (10-1) also has two Top 5 finishes at Chicago. Last season, he finished second to Newman. Stewart hasn’t been as good on these types of tracks this year. He also has the NASCAR police following his every move, which can’t be a comforting feeling.

Even though he had a great run last week at Daytona, there is a sense that NASCAR has in some ways taken the spirit out of Stewart. He is what he is and it makes for great racing and of course great drama. Some of the greats have had poor attitudes following a race that didn’t go well for them. But now, more than ever before, NASCAR is national.

Since more people are watching, they feel the need to react in a more stern fashion. They are right for doing so, but I’d hate to see Stewart lose his gusto. Between the cookie cutter tracks and vanilla drivers, NASCAR will turn the sport into a video game with no personalities.

Michael Waltrip (25-1) may start a trend in NASCAR with owners. When Dale Jr. suggested they may look to go in another direction in the No. 15 car, Waltrip stepped up and has been an animal ever since. The only race he’s performed poorly has been at Daytona with plates on, a place where everyone says it’s his best track. Last year, Waltrip placed fifth at Chicago. Look for another strong run this week.

Again, the practice sessions are very critical for this race. If someone like Brendan Gaughan (38-1) is fast in the last two sessions, he’ll likely be quick in the race. Gaughan then is worth a shot at the betting window.