Development Journalists

Denny Hamlin at Full Strength Entering Chase

By Michael Guzman (CHICAGO) — Things were looking up for @DennyHamlin seven weeks ago when the Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished third in the Brickyard 400 after leading 18 laps and establishing momentum towards the Chase for the Championship.

But things changed quickly when crew chief Darian Grubb was suspended for the next six races for an unapproved rear firewall on his car that was deemed worthy of a P5 class penalty, the second most severe punishment under NASCAR’s new infraction system.

Hamlin has shown speed at larger tracks with interim crew chief Mike Wheeler but has also been involved in controversy on the short tracks, like Bristol, where he recently tossed his HANS device at @KevinHarvick from the apron. He also struggled mightily at Richmond and Watkins Glen, posting results that simply won’t make the cut once the Chase begins this weekend at Chicago.

Now Hamlin has his crew chief back, something he believes will provide an immediate boost for the entire JGR organization.

“Darian was still in touch with us quite a bit on race weekends and helped us out a lot” Hamlin said. “My communication with (Wheeler) over the past six weeks has been really good and I think he did an amazing job. We really didn’t miss a beat when you look at our performance.”

Now back at full strength, Hamlin has his eyes set on the ultimate prize. But like the rest of the playoff field, Hamlin knows he has to mentally reset for the Chase battle and explained the importance of limiting mistake over the next three months.

“This first round is going to be about mistakes,” Hamlin said. “Don’t make those mistakes and don’t beat yourself because we know that we’re capable of advancing based on the speed that we’ve had. We just can’t beat ourselves.”

Hamlin has already targeted Kansas — the first race of the second round — as a pivotal stop for his team, due to the lack of speed they had back in May.

“That was where we were the slowest in the spring,” Hamlin said. “And I have really struggled there since they repaved the racetrack and had the hard tires. So I think Kansas is as much of a wild card race as Talladega is. Obviously our superspeedway package has been amazing this year but that second bracket right with Kansas and Talladega is going to be the toughest one to get by.”


It’s Sauter vs. Crafton vs. Blaney at Chicagoland

By Vito Pugliese – Friday Night’s Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland Speedway is the series sixth trip to the 1.5-mile track in Joliet, and the 15th race of the season.

Last year @KyleBusch held off Brad @Keselowski by just .338 seconds, as the two Cup contenders started off their Chase weekend with a battle in the lower-tiered division. Keselowski is not in the field for this weekend’s race, despite his trucks having won the last two events. Busch, however will be in the field, much to the chagrin of CWTS regulars. Busch has been the odds on truck to beat this season in races he’s entered, failing to win just twice in his seven starts – one of which was a fuel mileage fiasco at Michigan.

The series is coming off one of the greatest finishes of the year – if not the history of the Trucks – with a last lap/final corner battle between @gerspeed1 (German Quiroga) and @RyanBlaney22 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. The ironic stark contrast between the dust up with @ChaseElliott and @TyDillon that occurred the year before showcased the way racing used to be, prior to the bump and run – and more recently the dump and run. It was a race so well ran that nobody even noticed there weren’t any post-race confrontations or guy’s girlfriends slapping other drivers as there was the year before.

With all that great buzz coming two weeks ago, this should be cause for celebration, right? After all @JohnnySauter has just a slim seven point lead over @Matt_Crafton, 13 over Blaney, and just 48 markers ahead of fifth place Quiroga.

Well, not so fast.

This week’s field shows just 30 entrants, including the addition of 2011 champion @AustinDillon3 in Bob Newberry’s No. 20 Chevrolets, with a recently departed team’s sponsor on-board. The No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports team of four-time series champion @RonHornaday has officially shut down, despite statements to the contrary from sponsor Rheem that they were happy with the arrangement and had fully funded the team.

The Truck Series has slowly been dwindling down on starters in recent weeks, a continued commentary regarding the health of the series and a red flag that something must be done to help spur both growth and interest in the division which has traditionally featured some of the best racing, heated battles and rivalries among NASCAR’s top three televised series.

Where Sprint Cup rightfully bills itself as the premier motorsports series in North America and the Nationwide Series has an amazing crop of young talent that will end up being the Cup Series contingent over the next decade, the Truck Series has slowly devolved into a dysfunctional hodge-podge of premier Cup drivers, up and coming development drivers, and journeymen of the sport who’s best days are behind them. This coupled with teams that struggle to last until halfway and bodywork that sometimes consists of spray painted duct tape, and stands that you could … well, drive a truck through, it’s an area that needs to be addressed quickly if full-weekend companion events are going to continue.

But do they really need to? Therein may lay the answer.

Friday’s race at Chicagoland takes place at 8:30pm. What else is going on at this time? Right, every high school football game in America. As much as we all love racing, let’s lower the ego and face the facts: Football is America’s national pastime come fall, especially on a Friday. Saturdays are dominated by college football, and Sundays are spent with the TV looking like a strobe light flipping between NFL, MLB and NASCAR.

During the summer, the Friday night races suffer viewership because, it’s Friday night and for those of us in the Midwest who had to endure -15 ambient air temperatures for four months, we have to savor every precious hour of sunlight and degree we can. That Busch stat I cited earlier doesn’t do much to encourage competition either.

The purses for finishing outside of the top-10 are a little light to say the least; the 15th place finisher at Bristol barley made $9,000. Factor in the cost of travel, tires, hotels, and personnel, and it’s not hard to see why there are but 30 trucks entered at a 1.5-mile track this weekend – even in a major media market on the eve of NASCAR’s playoffs.

Imagine if a couple of stops along the way included another road course or short track to elevate the racing action — and not just Busch’s retirement coffers.

I feel that NASCAR would do well to move the Truck Series to smaller regional tracks during the summer months to help gin up more interest and support with better racing and closer competition during the summer months, and tie in these companion events during The Chase come the fall.

No the Truck Series don’t need 43 car fields and a sell-out crowd; that’s not their model or the purpose. Improved scheduling around qualifying and practice, and packaging it around a more convenient television schedule would be of great benefit, as would returning to a short track – or road course – format where it helped develop its prior reputation and fan base.

Race coverage begins Friday evening at 8:30 p.m. EST on FOX Sports 1.


FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese


Welcome to the Weekend: Chicagoland Speedway

EXCLUSIVE By Seth Sharp – The first race under the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format gets underway this weekend as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Speedway for the 400.

Under the new format, after the first three races (Chicagoland, Loudon and Dover) the top-12 drivers in points advance to the Contender round. If any of the Chase drivers win, they automatically guarantee themselves a spot in the following round regardless of where they sit in points.

Over the 14 races run at Chicagoland, 10 different drivers have gone to Victory Lane, including six straight. In last season’s Chase opener, @MattKenseth dominated and proved himself to be a contender for the championship. And 11 of the top-12 finishers were Chase drivers. @DaleJr and pole-sitter @JoeyLogano were the only playoff drivers to finish lower than 16th, at 35th and 37th respectively.

The speedway will be dialing up the patriotism for the Chase Opener, which lies on the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem. During pre-race ceremonies, descendants of Francis Scott Key will be joining the track to pay tribute to America.

About the Track

In the late 1990’s developers had their eye on Chicago as a potential market for racing. The success of Route 66 raceway, a state of the art dragstrip in Joliet, IL helped developers make the decision of opening an adjacent speedway. After breaking ground for Chicagoland Speedway in September of 1999, the speedway opened up in July 2001. Rookie @KevinHarvick won the first Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) race at the track.

It is a 1.5-mile tri-oval speedway that sits southwest of Chicago. The track features variable banking with the frontstretch at 11 degrees, the backstretch at 5 degrees while the turns are banked at 18. The width of Turn 1 and Turn 2 is 1.55 ft. but once drivers get around to the final two turns, the track opens up to 3.55 ft.

Meet the Brains Behind the Operation

On January 4, 2011, Scott Paddock was named the President of Chicagoland Speedway. Previously, he was the Director of Sports Marketing for the Gatorade Company. He was influential in their partnership with International Speedway Corporation and also in the creation of the “Gatorade Victory Lane” title.

Paddock wears many different hats on a race weekend, but his number one priority is the safety of the guests and participants.

“We have a tremendous staff here at the track that helps the overall execution of the event run smoothly,” he told Popular Speed.

After the Sprint Cup Series leaves for a year, Paddock travels around the city to help grow interest in the track and NASCAR in general.

“Because of my job, I am the face and brand ambassador of motorsports in the Chicago area,” he revealed. “It is a very competitive market with the stick and ball teams in Chicago so we have to continue to come up with new ideas and upgrades to attract the attention of new fans.”

He mentions that one of the most surprising facts about the speedway is the “aesthetic beauty and lust nature of the track and the area around it.”

Paddock is a former College Basketball player at Notre Dame, playing against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Danny Manning. After graduating, he played Internationally for five years before starting on the U.S.A National Team in the 1995 Pan-American Games in Argentina. The United States won a silver medal.

Did you Know?

⇒ Since the race moved from July to the first race of the Chase in September, a Chase driver has won the opener each of the three seasons. @TonyStewart and Brad @Keselowski went on to win the championship while Matt Kenseth finished second.

⇒ Ford has never won a Sprint Cup or Camping World Truck event at the track. In 17 Nationwide races, they have three victories. Overall, Ford has gone to Victory Lane in three of 36 total NASCAR events at the track.

⇒ Only six of the 43 drivers from the inaugural 2001 Tropicana 400 are still full-time Sprint Cup Series drivers.

⇒ In the second race at the track, Kevin Harvick won from 32nd, which is the farthest back any winner has ever come from.

⇒ Four first-time winners won races during the Busch Series’ (now Nationwide) first six races at the track. (@JimmieJohnson in 2001, @JohnnySauter in 2002, Justin Labonte in 2004 and @CJMearsGang (Casey Mears) in 2006.)

@KyleBusch is the only driver to win in all three NASCAR series’ at the track. Besides Busch, Brad Keselowski is the only driver to win in the Nationwide Series as well as the Sprint Cup Series.



Development Journalists

Five Predictions for Chicagoland

By Jason Schultz – While the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series isn’t racing this weekend, the spotlight shifts to the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Chicagoland Speedway.

The mix of young talent, competitors making rare appearances in Nationwide Series competition and Sprint Cup regulars creates a unique field. These differences will play a factor as the idea fuels this week’s five predictions.

Following two straight wins for the No. 5 @JRMotorsports entry, hopes were high for @AustinTheriault in New Hampshire. He was unable to perform as well as the team had in previous weeks, finishing 21st.

With Daytona winner @KaseyKahne getting back behind the wheel, the team will rebound to finish inside of the top-five.

One of @Elliott_Sadler’s four Nationwide Series victories in 2012 came in the 300. The No. 11 team hopes his past success translates into another good run as $100,000 is on the line in the “Dash 4 Cash.” He will battle last weekend’s D4C winner @ReganSmith along with @Chris_Buescher and @BScottRacing (Brian Scott) for the prize. Expect a close fight, but for Sadler to take home the incentive.

Despite exceeding performance expectations so far this season, @ChaseElliott has been unable to qualify for the first two D4C events. Its hard to believe he hasn’t been among the top finishing series regulars considering his current position of second in the driver’s standings.

I anticipate him to have an impressive run this weekend. He will score a top-five finish and become eligible to compete for $100,000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Unlike this time last year when Smith held a monstrous lead in the driver’s standings, the points are relatively close at the top. Second-place Sadler and third-place Elliott are awaiting any mistake by the No. 7 team so they can narrow the gap. With both drivers having stellar runs, watch for the top of the standings to tighten up a bit.

Chevrolet has been victorious in two out of the three July events at Chicagoland. Having both Sprint Cup regulars entered and competing in Camaros will give them an added advantage.

@KyleLarsonRacin has raced very well on mile and a half tracks this season. His victory in Charlotte demonstrated his expertise getting around a 1.5-mile facility. I believe the No. 42 team will have a dominant run Saturday night and take their third win of the season.

Anytime NASCAR competes under the lights, the competition intensifies. With Kahne helping the No. 5 team rebound, Sadler taking the D4C win, Elliott showing some muscle with a great run, the top of the standings closing up and Larson making it to Victory Lane – there will be some fantastic racing on display.

Jason Schultz is a Popular Speed Development Journalist