Chicagoland Viewer's Guide

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

With eight races left in the Race to the Chase, each race between now and Richmond — the 26th race of the year — takes on greater importance. The clock is ticking loudly for several teams this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Only 12 teams will make the Chase so there's a lot of pressure in the garage area. Drivers like Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman are desperate to get into the the top dozen. Last week at Daytona, a sense of urgency had drivers — even those in the top 12 — driving to the limit and racing hard from start to finish. You'll see the same thing in Chicagoland.

Who to Watch

At some tracks, you have a pretty good idea of who is going to be good. Typically, the cream rise to the top, but the Nextel Cup Series has only been racing on this track since 2001. Usually, I like to factor in a combination of recent success with past history at a track, but it's a challenge because there have only been six races.

  • Tony Stewart: Last week, Stewart had a great race car at Daytona in his quest for a third consecutive 400-mile win. After making contact with his teammate Denny Hamlin and losing that chance at history, he'll bounce back. Typically, when Stewart faces adversity, he's at his best the next week and beyond. He thrives under pressure so he'll do well this week.
  • Jeff Gordon: On top of his game right now, Gordon is mentally very sharp, and he's the defending race winner here.
  • Jimmie Johnson: With a worst finish of 6th in five starts at Chicagoland, Johnson has led 79 laps. The No. 48 team is sharp, too, even though both Johnson and Gordon have lost their crew chiefs to suspensions.
  • Matt Kenseth: Leading 288 laps over the past two Chicagoland races, Kenseth thrives on this kind of track. Teams have to get better as the race goes on, and Kenseth does because he gives great feedback to crew chief Robbie Reiser. He understands the feel of his race car. We even use the expression that this a "Matt Kenseth type of track."
  • What to Watch

  • Not where you start: Four of six race winners qualified outside the top 10. In 2004, Stewart qualified 10th but had to go to a backup car, started in the back of the field and won so starting up front isn't important. What is important is giving your crew chief and team enough feedback to make your car better if it isn't great at the beginning of the race.
  • Balance speed and crew chief's needs: It's a very fast track. During qualifying, some guys were going 203 and 204 mph at the end of the backstretch. Drivers are on the ragged edge an all day. While giving articulate feedback, drivers have to stay focused on going fast.
  • Groove moves: It used to be a one-groove track, but like Texas Motor Speedway, drivers can pass now. They've raced once a year here since 2001, and teams have built up notes and gained experience. They know how to make the car last and get faster. Knowing what your car wants and where and when it wants it is extremely important. That's why racing is better at Chicagoland now. Teams understand this racetrack better, which is why the groove has widened out.
  • Pit Perspective

    Covering Stewart for DirecTV's HotPass last week at Daytona, he was so frustrated when Darrell Waltrip and I started talking to him after his wreck with Hamlin. Teams have to put Daytona in the rear view mirror. Both of those guys had great cars so it was very disappointing. Stewart was really sick about it because he knew it was a good car, and drivers don't have an opportunity to win every single week. But they have to shake it off. Should they have been racing that hard? I'm not pointing fingers. But they have to put it behind them and look ahead. If they dwell on it, it'll breed nothing but hardship.

    Speed Mail Steve

    Some drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch are leaving their teams, and it's a tenuous situation. Busch felt like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon didn't help him at Daytona. If things go bad on the track, it strains those relationships even further. As professional as these drivers are, if things start going bad, they go bad in a hurry. It's worth keeping an eye on. Busch is already feeling the pressure, and Jeff Gordon said it's up to Kyle how the rest of the season goes. Daytona is an emotional race, but if you know your teammate is in it for the long haul, you can weather the hard times.

    Finish Line

    All 1 1/2-mile tracks aren't the same. Chicagoland Speedway is a difficult racetrack with only one repeat winner, Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman, who won this race in 2003, said the track is like a big circle, and pole-sitter Casey Mears made it all the way around without lifting. It also doesn't have the banking that other 1 1/2-mile tracks like Lowe's Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway have. On one hand, teams have to be patient, but on the other hand, it's only a 267-lap/400-mile race.

    NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

    Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray

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