The Frontstretch: Race Trax: USG Sheetrock 400 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday July 6, 2006

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Race Trax: USG Sheetrock 400

Amy Henderson · Thursday July 6, 2006


On Track
The USG Sheetrock 400 is the eighteenth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule. The Nextel Cup Series races at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway just once a year. The track is a relative newcomer to the circuit, seeing its first Nextel Cup winner in Kevin Harvick in 2001. Chicagoland is a medium-banked tri-oval with 18 degrees of banking in the turns, 11 through the tri-oval, and 5 on the back straightaway. The field will include the 2005 polesitter Jimmie Johnson and defending race winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

50 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner's points will determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team's time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Chicagoland is 188.147 mph, set by Jimmie Johnson in 2005.

The Nextel Cup Series points race got closer after Daytona. Jimmie Johnson's point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth shank to just eight points after Johnson's late-race crash at DIS. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne, and Tony Stewart round out the top five. Stewart's win last week stopped a month-long skid and moved Stewart back into the top five. Getting tangled in a late-race melee cost Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle, as they fell from the top ten, while Kyle Busch's strong finish catapulted him four spots this week to eighth, and Denny Hamlin creeps back into the tenth spot.

What To Expect
Expect quite a few caution periods-the fewest ever in this race is seven-but nothing like the multi-car crashes that most of the field avoided at Daytona this time around. Chicagoland is a medium-banked track, flatter than Lowe's Motor Speedway and Atlanta, but more banked than Las Vegas or Kansas. It tends to favor the setups similar to the ones used on the tracks on the flatter side, though, so look for teams who ran well at Vegas and Kansas to be strong contenders. There should be at least one long green flag period, which will serve to show which teams have hit on the setup versus those with the brute horsepower but not the handling to go with it.

Who to Watch
Kevin Harvick was the only Cup winner at Chicago until Ryan Newman dethroned him in 2003. Harvick will contend this week, and Newman badly needs a strong showing. Jeff Gordon has top ten finishes here despite never having won-and he'd love to shrink the list of winless tracks to three this week. Jimmie Johnson has never finished out of the top five here, and has a Busch Series win to boot. He's looking to avoid a summer swoon and solidify his position on top of the points, and with an average finish of third at this track he's an early favorite.

Then there's the Roush Racing stable-all five cars should be strong, especially Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Tony Stewart started a summer-long dominance that ultimately led to a championship run at this time last year and he has four top-five runs in Chicago, a statistic that only Stewart and Johnson can boast. A dark horse candidate could be Casey Mears, who picked up a top-five last year at this track and had a top-ten run last week.

Did You Know:
-There have been five different polesitters in five races at Chicagoland?

-A Ford has never won at this track?

-When Kevin Harvick won here in 2002, he came from 32nd starting spot to do it?

You Don't Say…
"It's hard to believe that two years ago I was racing ASA and wondering what I was going to do next as that series began to fall apart. Now I am making my first NEXTEL Cup start for Jack Roush. It's amazing how much things can change in such a short amount of time. I'm really excited about this weekend. We had a great test with this car at Kentucky a few weeks ago. The Cup cars seem to drive so much easier than the Busch cars. You can do a lot more with throttle control which is what I'm used to from racing in Wisconsin. Sunday will be a big day since if everything goes according to plan I'll be making my first Cup start on my Mom's birthday. Luckily this race is close enough to home that she will be there for it." rookie driver Todd Kluever, who will attempt to make the field for his first Nextel Cup race this weekend

"He's an engineer. He's a racecar driver. He's a crew chief and he's team director now. It's like he has everything. He's really focused and he listens. I respect him a lot, and I think our team is good because of that. We've gotten along good all along. Last year when I was struggling, and we were coming home from races on Ray's plane, I'm explaining why I'm slow and this and that. Half the guys are sleeping. The other guys are looking out the window, and Kenny is looking straight at me trying to listen, trying to learn to make his team better. He wasn't trying to make my team better. He was trying to make Evernham Motorsports better and Jeremy and what they had going on. He was always listening and always interested in making things better." driver Kasey Kahne on team director Kenny Francis, who joined the No. 9 team from the No. 19 this year

"From the very first time I was there in a Busch car my rookie season, I enjoyed the race track. It’s a place where you can really stand on the gas. I struggled early on at some tracks because you really have to let the car roll and you have to be more patient. Being a young rookie, I wanted to hold the throttle down as long as I could. But Chicago fits that template. In our first race there (2004 Busch Series race), we qualified well, had an opportunity to win the race, led a lot of laps, we pitted – we probably shouldn’t have – and we gave the race away. Last year, same situation. We were very, very fast, very good, pitted with 20 to go, and couldn’t get back to the front. Aero is a big thing there because the race track is a very fast, mile-and-a-half oval, but that’s why I like it.” rookie driver J.J. Yeley on Chicagoland Speedway

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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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