Deep dish: Recalling 19 seasons of NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway

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Scuffles in the pits, furious last-lap battles, game-changing announcements and news conferences.

Chicagoland Speedway has delivered some memorable moments over the past two decades.

While it sometimes has been lumped in with the 1.5-mile sameness on the schedule, much has happened in the cornfields about an hour southwest of downtown Chicago.

Who knows what might have been in store for NASCAR’s premier series Sunday, which was the original date for the Cup Series’ annual visit to Joliet, Illinois, before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wiped it off the slate.

CUP AT TALLADEGA: All the details for Sunday’s race

CONSTANT OF CHANGE: Brad Keselowski on beating Talladega

It might be difficult to reflect with everything else happening in NASCAR and the world, though.

“I think everybody is just so head down just trying to get through everything that’s been thrown at us every day and every week,” Brad Keselowski, who won at Chicagoland in 2012 and ‘14, said this week. “It’s so hard to have any perspective right now. I think that whether it’s virus or protests and that’s happening globally, then we have our own little focus world of at the racetrack and trying to win and trying to overcome no practice.

Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the Sept. 14 2014 race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I’ve got to do a health screening every other day. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, I don’t have any help at the racetrack. It’s a complete mess and we’re all just trying to kind of live through the days. I think somebody brought up on Twitter about not going to Sonoma. That hadn’t even crossed my mind, not even in the faintest. People ask me what day it is, and I have no idea what day it is.

“So it’s really hard to have any context to a lot of what’s going on. I’m trying, we’re all trying, but when it comes to things like trying to put missing Chicago in perspective it’s like, ‘I’m just trying to make it to Talladega.’ ”

Before turning attention to 500 miles Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, it seems worthy for a speedy loop through the highlights of Chicagoland Speedway, which opened in 2001 but faces a cloudier future.

While Keselowski and others are hoping the 2021 schedule will include a stop in The Windy City, NASCAR already has announced one new track (Nashville Superspeedway) and seems to be considering other fresh markets and venues, too, as it explores midweek races, streamlined schedules and other efficiencies discovered since the schedule was restarted May 17.

“Whether it’s different tracks, different venues, different schedules, setups, rosters, I’m all ears,” Keselowski said. “I just want what’s best for this sport and without being able to see all the data to speak to 100 percent knowledge base, I would say that the knowledge base that I do have there are a lot of things I like and one of them is Chicago.”

While we await the decision on a 20th season of NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway, here are 19 of the more important, irreverent and intense moments in the track’s racing history from 2001-19 (which also includes IndyCar):

1. The “Slide Job”: The July 1, 2018 duel between Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson simply ranks as among the best full-contact fights for a victory in NASCAR history. That it was punctuated by the debut of a new NASCAR on NBC broadcaster’s exuberant call of the action only added to the lore. The race also was memorable with “The Big Three” of Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all involved in the highlights and showcasing their championship mettle.

2. Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne square off: A mentor-pupil relationship was tested when Tony Stewart wrecked Cup rookie Kasey Kahne out of the lead. Tommy Baldwin, Kahne’s crew chief, led his team to Stewart’s pit and a scuffle briefly ensued after which Ray Evernham vowed to “have 10 minutes alone with Tony Stewart and I’ll handle this by myself.” Oh by the way, Stewart won the July 11, 2004 race, his first victory of the season.

Matt Kenseth shortly before being bumped from the lead by Jeff Gordon in the July 9, 2006 race at Chicagoland Speedway (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images).

3. Jeff Gordon vs. Matt Kenseth: In a feud that had started four months earlier with a bump and a shove at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon spun Matt Kenseth out of the lead and led the final seven laps of a July 9, 2006 victory. “He should have expected some action,” Gordon said. “Because of what happened in Bristol, you better believe I was going to make his life difficult.” Said Kenseth: “That wasn’t an accident,” said Kenseth, a Cambridge, Wis., native racing at the track closest to his hometown. “He just ran over me.”

4. Runaway orange on the frontstretch: Tropicana sponsored the first four Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway but was most well-known for an Xfinity qualifying highlight on July 9, 2004. As driver Todd Szegedy began his lap, he nearly ran into a 20-foot-high inflatable orange with a red and white straw that broke loose from its moorings and caught a breeze on the frontstretch. “I used to like orange juice, now it almost killed me,” Szegedy said. “It would have been neat if it would have hooked onto my car.”

5. IndyCar by a nose: In the closest finish in the history of the NTT IndyCar Series, Sam Hornish Jr. nipped Al Unser Jr. by 0.0024 seconds Sept. 8, 2002 at Chicagoland Speedway. Tight finishes in Joliet, Illinois, were a hallmark for IndyCar, which raced there from 2001-10 and also recorded its second-closest finish (Helio Castroneves by 0.0033 over Scott Dixon on Sept. 7, 2008) and fourth-closest finish (Ryan Briscoe by 0.0077 over Dixon on Aug. 29, 2009) at the 1.5-mile oval.

6. A historic baker’s dozen: Chicago is known for a checkered history of political controversies and scandals, so it was only fitting that one of NASCAR’s worst happened here. NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the Sept. 13, 2013 addition of Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver to the playoff field after a review of the race manipulation in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The following day, France gathered crew chiefs, drivers and car owners to read them the riot act about future race tampering.

Team owner Chip Ganassi (left) and NASCAR president Mike Helton helped welcome Juan Pablo Montoya to the Cup Series (Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR).

7. International appeal: The buzz began as soon as the Chicagoland garage opened Sunday morning, July 9, 2006. A Formula One winner was coming directly to NASCAR? And not the IndyCar Series where he’d made his fame? A few hours later, Juan Pablo Montoya officially was announced as Chip Ganassi Racing’s new driver for 2007. “It’s a historic announcement to have someone of his international success and caliber,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “It simply transcends every effort NASCAR has been involved in for 58 years to make it desirable, diverse and international. Anybody who follows motor sports naturally would know his name.” Montoya called it “my toughest challenge ever,” and he was right. Though the Colombian won twice, he never consistently contended over seven Cup seasons.

8. No puppet show allowed: In one of the more amusing chapters in Chicagoland history, several Cup teams were banned from having Muppets characters in their pits in a paint scheme sponsorship tied to the 25th anniversary of “The Muppet Show.” Track officials said it was because Chicagoland wasn’t part of the promotion. “Anybody want to let the Muppets out of jail?” Bill Elliott asked after qualifying third with a No. 9 Dodge that had the Swedish Chef on its hood.

9. Justin Labonte’s miracle Xfinity victory: In perhaps the biggest upset in track history, Justin Labonte started 34th, fell a lap down and won on a fuel mileage gambit when Mike Wallace ran out of gas on the last lap. Labonte, who hadn’t led a lap or finished in the top 10 of 30 previous Xfinity starts, celebrated in a low-key manner after the July 10, 2004 race. He held the checkered flag out his window on a victory lap saluting his part-time team, which had eight employees and was owned by his two-time Cup champion father. “This is bigger than any win I’ve ever had,” Terry Labonte said.

Kyle Busch passes Jimmie Johnson on the final restart July 12, 2008 at Chicagoland Speedway (Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR).

10. A memorable restart: The odds seemed stacked against Kyle Busch on a two-lap shootout that ended the first Cup night race at Chicagoland. Busch was running second to Jimmie Johnson, two championships into his run of five consecutive. But at the final green flag on July 12, 2008, Busch swung his No. 18 to the outside of Johnson’s No. 48 and made it stick for the seventh of a series-high eight victories in 2008. Busch who radioed his team in resignation while chasing Johnson earlier, told his crew, “I appreciate you guys sticking with me. I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, but you’ll have that in a punk.”

11. The pass of the season: With extraordinary finesse, Brad Keselowski split the middle between the top two cars of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson and led the final 17 laps to win the Sept. 14, 2014 playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. “I just saw a hole and I went for it,” the Team Penske driver said. “(Harvick) and (Larson) were racing really hard. It just opened a hole. I didn’t know if my car would stick, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it.”

Tony Stewart celebrates after winning Sept. 19, 2011 (Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR).

12. Smoke rises: Four days after proclaiming he wasn’t a contender for the championship, Tony Stewart won Sept. 19, 2011 (held on a Monday afternoon) as Chicagoland opened the Cup playoffs for the first time. It was the first victory of the year for Stewart, who won five of the final 10 races for his third championship.

13. First-time winner: For the second consecutive year, Larson came up on the short end of a memorable outcome as Alex Bowman finally fulfilled the promise of being hired by Hendrick Motorsports. After losing the lead to Larson for two laps, Bowman regained it with five laps remaining in the June 30, 2019 race.

14. A fiery wreck: In the track’s scariest crash, Ryan Briscoe briefly went airborne and landed on the backstretch SAFER barrier in a fireball that split his car in half. Briscoe thankfully survived but broke his shoulders in the Sept. 11, 2005 wreck and spent a week in the hospital recovering. He returned to win at the track four years later.

David Reutimann and Rodney Childers celebrate their victory (Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR).

15. Best in class: Though the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in 2009 was his first victory, the July 10, 2010 triumph at Chicagoland Speedway will be remembered as David Reutimann’s greatest victory. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver and crew chief Rodney Childers had the best car start to finish, beating Jeff Gordon straight up. “I felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over our head with that win at the 600,” Reutimann said. “Everybody just says, ‘Yeah, you guys won, but .. ‘Now I’m just like, ‘OK, here you go, just leave me alone. We won the race.”

16. Junior’s achievement: After the first half of a season that wrecked his confidence, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored an out-of-the-blue victory July 10, 2005 with Steve Hmiel, his third crew chief in six months. It would be Earnhardt’s lone Cup triumph that season. “It’s a long time coming,” he said. “It’s real emotional . . . more than I can handle right now. With all the darts thrown at these guys this year. It’s just awesome.”

Jimmie Johnson in 2001(ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

17. Quiet breakthrough: The first Xfinity race at Chicagoland Speedway was also the first NASCAR victory for a legend. Jimmie Johnson was an unheralded driver for Herzog Motorsports when he led the final 43 laps to win July 14, 2001. Within three months, he was hired to drive the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports, and the rest is history.

18. Another first-timer: Casey Mears already had been a Cup driver for four seasons when he scored his only career Xfinity victory in a fuel-mileage play to lead the final 47 laps July 8, 2006 at Chicagoland Speedway. It came a month after Mears had been hired by Hendrick for the 2007 season, in which he’d get his final victory (the Coca-Cola 600).

19. Lights, camera, action: Chicagoland’s proximity to the country’s third-largest media market often has meant drawing a larger share of Hollywood stars plugging their work. During the July 2006 weekend, it was Will Ferrell and the cast of “Talladega Nights” promoting the NASCAR-themed movie released that summer. Ferrell got a prerace ride in a stock car driven by Wally Dallenbach Jr. “I almost threw up doing the donuts,” Ferrell said. “A mixture of G forces and burning rubber after eating eggs is not the best.”

Actor Will Ferrell gives a  thumbs up before taking a lap with Wally Dallenbach Jr. in the pace car at Chicagoland Speedway (Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR),

NASCAR Penalty report from Michigan

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The NASCAR penalty report from Michigan International Speedway has been released.

It includes two fines for unsecured lug nuts. Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, and Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, have each been fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut during the course of the weekend.

The report also includes the penalties issued Saturday to Roush Fenway Racing for the improper spoilers used on both Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher‘s cars.

Brendan Gaughan set for Daytona road course after COVID-19 recovery

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On July 15, part-time Cup Series driver Brendan Gaughan became the second NASCAR driver to announce he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks and testing negative for COVID-19 twice more than 24 hours apart, Gaughan has been medically cleared to go racing again.

And he won’t even have to wait until the Cup Series regular-season finale on Aug. 29 to do it.

Originally scheduled to only compete in the season’s four superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, Gaughan will suit up to drive the No. 62 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

He joins Jimmie Johnson in having tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to race. While Gaughan last competed in the June 22 race at Talladega, Johnson only missed the Brickyard 400 before returning to the track.

“I feel fantastic,” Gaughan said in a press release. “I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces.”

To get clearance to race, Gaughan tested twice for COVID-19 in more than 24 hours and also had to get a doctor’s note saying he was good to go.

“That was it,” Gaughan said. “As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”

While he was originally just going to race at Talladega and the Daytona oval, Gaughan says this weekend’s road course race “technically counts.”

“We said all of the Daytona races,” Gaughan said. “What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field.”

Brendan Gaughan
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Gaughan competed on the road course and earned a class victory in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his team beating second place by a full lap. He’s ran in the Rolex 24 twice since, finishing third in 2016 in the Prototype Challenge class and 14th in 2018 in the Prototype division.

“I was immediately enticed by it,” Gaughan said of the road course race. “Then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board.

“They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”

Gaughan, who will start last in the race due his lack of owner points, dissected how different it will be navigating the road course in Cup compared to the sports car he drove the last time he raced on it.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” Gaughan said. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place.

“You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that it’s going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America.

“I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.