Chicagoland tilt may tell us plenty about the way Chase will shake out

Updated: July 11, 2008, 12:30 PM ET

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Chicagoland Speedway is more than a cookie-cutter track. It's a welcomed chance to look ahead to the Chase.

Start Your Engines

With due respect to the fine folks of Joliet, Ill., and the surrounding greater Chicago area, Saturday night's Sprint Cup stop at their humble 7-year-old Chicagoland Speedway won't be quite the same destination event as this past Saturday night at iconic Daytona.

Restrictor-plate racing at the 2.5-mile superspeedways is must-see TV, with looming disaster seemingly riding shotgun with 43 drivers. But 267 laps on a mile-and-a-half oval, like this weekend? It's racin', just not usually edge-of-your-seat mayhem.

In terms of the Chase, though, take a closer look. Chicagoland has more going for it than a number of other tracks hosting races this summer.

When the Chase fires up in nine weeks, the 12 title contenders will need solid intermediate programs to have any shot at claiming the Cup. Five of the 10 playoff races including three of the final four are on 1.5-mile ovals, yet only one is on the schedule from June through August -- Chicagoland. Other summer stops such as the two road course events, two races at Pocono, one at Indianapolis and three stops at 2-milers Michigan and California, require setups that don't directly translate to Chase races.

There's a lot to learn this weekend, and contending teams will be paying close attention.

"We pushed the envelope a bit here last season because we felt like we had some things that we really needed to try in race conditions as we headed into the Chase," said Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, seventh in points. "It was never a case of thinking we were going to put a car on the track that wasn't competitive, but we were sitting in good shape in the points so I guess it was a calculated risk at that stage of the season. We were in second place in the points but knew we would have to improve our intermediate package if we were going to be a factor in the Chase so we had to keep pushing."

It's little coincidence that the teams who end up in the Chase have shown their strength at Chicago. Seven of the top 10 in last year's race went on to the Chase, including winner Tony Stewart. The first six finishers in 2006 all advanced to the postseason, including winner Jeff Gordon.

"I always look forward to going to Chicago because I'm nervous about [home-state Chase race] Kansas," said Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer, 10th in points. "It's very important to me to run well at Chicago because I know if I leave there with some momentum and a little bit of confidence, I'll go to Kansas with that very same set-up and run well there, too."

Many call the 1.5-milers "cookie-cutters" -- four of the last five new tracks on the Cup schedule are those configurations -- though they're not all exactly the same. Chicagoland gets some of the better marks around the garage, and this year's race will have the added intrigue of a first-ever night start.

"Chicagoland is very fast and relatively flat, which makes it challenging," said Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle, perilously close to the Chase cutoff in 11th place. "It requires a lot of throttle and brake control and those types of tracks are the most fun for a driver."

Fun, but with a purpose.

Rocket Man

Kyle Busch: This week's highlight-reel moment from the Sprint Cup points leader and now 12-time race winner across NASCAR's top three series: saving a near-wreck on Lap 82 at Daytona, ducking down to the apron and regrouping for a run back through the field.

"When I got hit from Denny, and I pulled out of line to try to pass, the air pinned the nose and it just got me squirrelly down the straightaway," the 23-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing star said. "And there was really no rear grip in the rear tires while I was going straight for whatever reason. So I just had to slow it down and get it straight and ride the apron there.

"Then I think when I rode the apron, I must have peeled the tires pretty bad because they were so hot that when I got going for the next couple laps, it just felt like the steering wheel had a lot of play in it; but I think the tires were just so hot that they weren't reacting, they were just sliding on the surface of the racetrack. So I just had to let them cool down a little bit and get everything back together."

Right. Just another day at the office for the circuit's best driver.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

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Slippery Slope

Truex

Martin Truex Jr.: Thanks for participating in this year's race for the Chase, please pick up your commemorative roof template on your way out.

How do teams keep screwing up with this new car with the precedent of triple-digit points penalties, huge fines and crew chief vacations having been set and reset for the past year and a half? Who knows, maybe the No. 1 team was feeling frisky after a season-best fourth the week prior at New Hampshire moved it up to 14th in points. Maybe it was an oversight like a loose lug nut.

Whatever it was, it brought a 150-point penalty, fines and a six-week suspension for crew chief Kevin Manion. Truex dropped four spots to 18th in points, all but guaranteeing the Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver a failed bid for a second consecutive Chase berth.

Right. Just another day at the office for the circuit's best driver.

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Ryan Newman: For much of the season the No. 12 Penske Dodge has been consistently up-and-down: two or three good finishes, a clunker, two or three more good runs, another clunker.

The latest stint: 42nd at Michigan, seventh at Sonoma, Calif., 15th at New Hampshire and 36th at Daytona. The second trip this season to the 2.5-mile superspeedway didn't measure up to his first, as he had a spinout and got in an accident with Jeff Burton and David Gilliland.

All the yo-yo finishes continue to leave him on the outside of Chase contention (currently 16th), and speculation on where he will drive next year will continue to outpace discussion of his playoff hopes.

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David Ragan: Don't rule out the chances of four Roush Fenway Fords making the Chase. Carl Edwards is a lock, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are currently within the top-12 in points and second-year driver Ragan is 14th, 22 points behind Tony Stewart's 12th spot.

The No. 6 came home fifth at Daytona, matching his second-best finish of the season. The best finish was a fourth at Talladega. Three of Ragan's five career top-5s are at restrictor-plate tracks, an unusual stat for a young driver.