Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2022 Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Joey Logano seems to have a knack for winning debut races. He won the first race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway last season and he won the first exhibition race held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February. Logano added to his debut race success on Sunday (June 5), as he passed and held off Kyle Busch in overtime to win the inaugural Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway. The win marked his second of the season and the 29th of his Cup Series career.

Logano winning wasn’t a surprise heading into the afternoon, but perhaps the way that he won it was. During practice, Logano had the fastest lap and the fastest long-run speed of all drivers. He then backed it up with a solid seventh-place qualifying effort. But like many other drivers in the race, Logano struggled to pass and make his way up the running order. He didn’t emerge as a serious winning threat until the final 50 laps, and he took the lead for the first time on a lap 218 restart. Busch retook the lead on a later restart, but Kevin Harvick‘s crash with five laps to go gave Logano another chance in overtime, and he led the final two laps on his way to victory.

Busch led a race-high 66 laps and finished runner-up for the second week in a row. But as disappointing as an ending it was for Busch and the No. 18 team, there are several positives to take away from his performance.

First, he is now within striking distance of the points lead. He entered the race in third, 37 points behind leader Chase Elliott. And with Elliott’s 21st-place finish on Sunday, Busch is now just nine points behind him for the top spot. He leads the series in top 10s (11) and average finish (10.6), and he only trails Ross Chastain with six top-five finishes on the season. For a driver that has been struggling to find dominance since winning the championship in 2019, Busch has been having a stellar year.

See also
Joey Logano Seizes Victory in Inaugural Gateway Cup Race

What… is the buzz about?

The biggest storyline throughout the race was the feud that Chastain had with Elliott and Denny Hamlin. While racing for position in the top 10 in stage two, Chastain got into the back of Hamlin in turn 1 and sent him into the wall on lap 64. The contact broke the toe link on Hamlin’s car and he was crippled for the rest of the race; he went on to finish 34th, 11 laps down.

But that wasn’t the end of the saga between the two. Hamlin was not happy with Chastain, and when the field came by to lap him in the laps after the restart, Hamlin drove Chastain all the way down to the apron of the backstretch before he managed to escape in turn 3. When the field came by to lap Hamlin for the second time in 30 laps, he brake-checked Chastain and held him up for as long as he could with his wounded car.

Chastain then had his second feud with Elliott, as he got into the back of him while racing three-wide on lap 101. Chastain received damage to the rear of his car while Elliott spun in front of the field and received significant damage to his nose. While Elliott stayed on the lead lap, his car was never the same, and he ran outside the top 20 for the remainder of the race.

See also
Ross Chastain Ruined Denny Hamlin's Day at Gateway

By coincidence of the restart order, Chastain lined up in front of Elliott and adjacent to Hamlin when the field went back to green. Immediately after the race resumed, Elliott got into the back of him heading into turn 1, sending him toward the wall. Hamlin held him up once again through the turn for good measure.

The rest of the race ran without further issue and Chastain ended up eighth. During his post-race interview, he apologized and held himself accountable for continuing to make the same mistakes.

Where… did the other key players wind up?

With rumors swirling in the past few days about Martin Truex Jr.‘s 2023 plans, he went out and had one of his best races of the season in his 600th start. He led 42 laps and was one of the dominant cars in the first half of the final stage. However, his race went awry when Tyler Reddick‘s spin sent the field to pit road and Truex’s team elected to take four tires. Half a dozen drivers elected to take two, sending Truex from the lead to outside the top five. He remained there for the remainder of the race and crossed the line in sixth.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the race was Michael McDowell. With the field on varying pit strategies in stage two, McDowell stayed out under caution and held the lead for 34 laps – the most laps he has ever led in a single Cup race. McDowell never reached the front of the field after pitting again and ended up 18th at the finish. Still, it was a commendable performance for a team and driver that lack the resources to run up front on a regular basis.

Heading into the race, Chase Briscoe looked like one of the best cars. He scored his first Cup Series pole on Saturday despite having a bobble in his qualifying lap. During the race, he cruised through the first 27 laps before a flat tire under green dropped him from first to last; he would briefly make a comeback into the top 10 in the final stage of the race, but he was left with a 24th-place finish after looking like the fastest car in the early stages of the race.

When… was the moment of truth?

With the Toyota duo of Truex and Kyle Busch out front, the field was heading toward green-flag pit stops in the final stage for the drivers’ final service of the race. Reddick’s spin with approximately 50 laps to go brought the entire field down pit road under caution, and the closing laps of the race were decided by these stops. Erik Jones won the race off pit road with two tires; Busch and Logano were also big winners as they took two tires as well. Truex took four and never sniffed the lead again.

When the race resumed, Busch made quick work of Jones and reclaimed the lead with Logano in tow. Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney were the only drivers that made four tires work, as they made quick progress on the initial restart and then found themselves racing for third place as the laps wound down.

A restart after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s crash saw Logano drive away from Busch on the restart, and a restart after Cole Custer‘s crash saw Busch take the lead back from Logano. But this time, Busch was not pulling away. In the final 10 laps, Logano was right on Busch’s bumper and was looking for a way around him on the track. But a final restart after Harvick’s crash saw Logano receive a strong push from Blaney, and he cleared Busch after a failed slide job while heading to the white flag.

For Truex and the No. 19 team, the last round of pit stops will be what could’ve been. They had the track position out front and they had the speed to stay there until they lost the lead on pit road. Truex also had history on the line, as he would’ve joined Richard Petty as the only driver to win in his 600th start. Had the team elected for two tires, they would have – at the very least – been in contention for the win in overtime. Still, it was a solid performance for a team that has been searching for speed in the Next Gen car.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series heads to wine country next weekend as the drivers will tackle the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway.

The race will mark the last of the season for FOX, and Tony Stewart will join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer as a guest announcer before NBC takes over the Cup schedule for the remainder of the year at Nashville Superspeedway.

In addition, the series will be returning to the Sonoma layout that was run from 1998 to 2018. The carousel, an extended section of the track that was raced from 1989 to 1997, was reintroduced in 2019. However, the extension proved to be unpopular, and the series will make its return to the 1.99-mile layout on Sunday for the first time in four years.

Sonoma will be the second road-course race of the season, and the weekend will be full of storylines. Will Elliott rebound from a lackluster showing at Circuit of the Americas to reclaim his road-course dominance? Will Larson go back-to-back at Sonoma for his second win of the season? Will Chastain follow up his win at COTA with another road-course win? Will Truex return to his Sonoma dominance now that the series is returning to the shorter layout? Tune in on Sunday to find out.

How… did Gateway perform in its first Cup race?

The race was highlighted by the shenanigans between Elliott, Chastain and Hamlin as well as the thrilling duel between Busch and Logano in the closing laps. However, the racing left a lot to be desired.

Drivers struggled to pass after restarts during the entire race, and drivers that stayed out under caution were almost guaranteed to hold the lead on track until pit stops happened again. The race has continued a disappointing trend with the Next Gen car, as the new car has fallen flat (no pun intended) on the flat tracks this season. The race at Martinsville Speedway in April was universally panned by fans and the race at Phoenix Raceway in March left a lot to be desired.

However, the Truck race on Saturday (June 4) showed that trucks could make passes for the lead and position when needed, even there was a degree of difficulty to it. Therefore, the fix may be with the Next Gen car.

The track was sold out for its debut, and the strong attendance showing means that World Wide Technology Raceway will likely be back on the schedule for 2023. And if that is the case, NASCAR needs to make changes to the Next Gen car so that it can make passes easier on tracks with low banking for next year.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf joined Frontstretch in September 2021. He is a staff writer and the Friday news writer. Stephen also pens the weekly “4 Burning Questions” column and contributes to “Friday Faceoff” and “2-Headed Monster.” A Texas native, Stephen started following NASCAR at age 9.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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johndawgchapman

By all accounts, the promoter & track owner get’s an A+. With both St. Louis & the Illinois State Government solidly behind the race, everyone’s efforts showed. The fans really seemed to be excited to be there. This has to be considered a huge win for all concerned, & especially, NASCAR.
Overlooked & overshadowed by the story line about Chastain’s issues, are two things that really impressed me.
Although he got tagged during the first pit stop, first time Cup starter, Zane Smith did an amazing job with barely a mention.
And the ‘Dinger, was just the Dinger, what can you say. Sad that he didn’t care to make a fulltime Cup effort. He should be in the mix next week as well.

JT

Really nice crowd at Gateway yesterday. I think this race is a “keeper”. And I also agree that Zane Smith deserves kudos for his 17th-place finish for his first Cup race.

DoninAjax

The 77 got the free pass THREE times, the 15 THREE times and the 78 got the free pass TWICE. These cars and others are rolling roadblocks. Maybe its time to put a limit on the free pass. Or it could be a way for NA$CAR to fudge the number of passes in their events. I wonder how many cars did the 78 and 77 “pass” during the event? How many times were they passed that NA$CAR is counting.

Shayne

The free pass. In a friendly game of golf it’s called a mulligan. In the real world of professional golf there’s no such thing. In NASCAR, it’s a gimmick that allows the top teams to compete for wins without earning a lap back. Once again, if you want a lap back: pass the leader. NASCAR doesn’t want teams like JGR and HMS along with their sponsors to endure the heartache of falling behind early in a race and not getting a free pass or 2 alongthe way. It’s a participation trophy moment for the good teams to use at will. Manipulation of racing at it’s finest. Must go over real well for a driver that works his ass off to stay upfront only to be beaten by a free pass driver at the end.

Mike

Its my understanding that the free pass was implemented by nascar when nascar banned racing back to the yellow flag. Since you now have to quit racing when the yellow comes out, that took away a chance to get a lap back by beating the leader back to the finish line. To me what is really crazy is to give a free pass at the end of each stage bc a driver knows the yellow will come out at the end of the stage. But stage racing is here to stay so the media can have a break to get more commercials in. At least they got rid of the competition caution.for now.

Shayne

Want your lap back? Pass the leader. If a driver can drive to the front and contend for a win with a free pass, they can drive to the front without a free pass too. It’s not fair for the drivers that bust their ass all day staying on the lead lap to be beaten by a driver that was given 1 or 2 laps back by the powers that be.

I remember racing back to the line when the caution was thrown. The leader of the race didn’t give his competition a free pass. The leader did everything to keep his competition a lap down. That’s racing.

Mike

Unfortunately the good days are gone. Now its all about the media. Im sure you remember when all lap down cars started on the inside so they could beat the leader and if a caution came out that is how they would get a lap back. You know race for it. That is what you are supposed to do right? Guess its called progress when a car is given their laps back.

DoninAjax

Remember at Watkins Glen when Baby Busch lost FIVE laps at the start and got FIVE free passes and won the event? Now THAT was manipulation!

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