A return to Chicago – minus playoff setting

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Raceway this weekend to begin a 10-week run that will wrap up the “regular” season and complete the 16-team playoff field for 2018.

Eight of the 10 races will air on NBCSN as the annual switch in TV partners takes place. Daytona in July and Watkins Glen in August will get the NBC treatment.

All 20 that remain will get the Dale Jr. treatment as Dale Earnhardt Jr. begins his post-driving career with a move to the television booth.

As for Chicagoland, after seven seasons as Stop No. 2 in the 10-race playoffs, the 1.5-mile track’s main event is back to roughly the same spot it held on the schedule its first 10 years – in the heat and the heart of summer.

The September date, meanwhile, has been awarded to Richmond International Raceway.

David Reutimann won the last Cup race contested in July at Chicagoland and his crew chief was Rodney Childers and that’s a name that’s familiar to a lot of folks these days.

Chicago was tabbed the City of the Big Shoulders by Carl Sandburg (no official NASCAR starts), but down by Joliet where the track is actually located, it’s been Martin Truex Jr. carrying the load and winning the races.

He’s won the last two times out at Chicagoland, and it was Denny Hamlin in ’15 and before that Matt Kenseth in ’13 and they all drove Toyotas so we know the brand and perhaps even the driver who should be favored in Sunday’s race, known as the Overton’s 400.

It is not a track that’s been particularly considerate to those who drive Fords – only once has one of their kind been to victory lane and that was in 2014 and that was Brad Keselowski who’s yet to win this season at the Cup level.

Kevin Harvick, on the other hand, has put Ford in victory lane five times this year and he won the first two Cup races here. Those were in Chevrolets and those were for Richard Childress Racing in ’01 and ’02.

The ’01 win was just the second of Harvick’s career and the second of his rookie season. He led 101 of the final 130 laps so it was no gimme.

Robert Pressley’s only career runner-up finish came in that race, by the way, for those who still recall the Ashville, N.C. native and former Xfinity Series regular.

Harvick’s wins this year have come at Atlanta and Las Vegas, Phoenix and Dover and Kansas and three of the five are mile-and-a-half layouts similar to Chicagoland. His overall average finishing position is 8.9. That’s better than good, in case you were wondering.

His crew chief is Childers, by the way, so between the two of them they have three wins at Chicagoland.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer has scratched out a pair of wins and Joey Logano (Team Penske) won at Talladega for Ford. But Harvick and his No. 4 team have been the mainstay, the one group that’s been there week after week.

On the Chevrolet front, Jimmie Johnson has led more laps (695) at the track and has more poles (two) than any other active driver so maybe if there’s a time and a place for the seven-time champion to snap out of his 39-race funk it’s this weekend at Chicagoland. Given recent results, that might qualify as a surprise.

There are only two 1.5-mile stops, Chicago and Kentucky, until the field of 16 is set and the rest are made up of big tracks (Daytona, Pocono, Michigan and Indy), another road course (Watkins Glen), a short track (Bristol) and a short-tempered track (Darlington).

Certainly, that would seem to open the door for a number of possibilities, but we’ve gotten this far on a steady diet of few winners so who can say for sure?

Sandburg’s piece begins:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler …”

Nowhere does it say anything about parity in NASCAR.

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