The Nationwide Series drivers are on center stage in Joliet.
On my first trip to what is now Chicagoland Speedway, there was no speedway.
The only thing that on site was a trailer on a dirt road nestled amongst the corn fields outside of Joliet, Illinois.
Fifteen years later, the 1.5-mile venue – which started as a project between Bill France Jr.’s International Speedway Corporation and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George -- hosts NASCAR’s top three tours and serves as the locale for the kickoff event in Chase to the Sprint Cup.
This weekend, the Nationwide Series returns to Chicagoland – the first of two trips to the northern Illinois track situated just over an hour west of the Windy City.
But what makes this particular race so compelling is that the NNS will be on center stage this weekend. Not only is the EnjoyIllinois300.com a stand-alone event, but with the Sprint Cup Series off until next week, the spotlight will be solely on NASCAR’s AAA tour.
Since the series debuted at Chicagoland in July 2001, it’s provided a stage where up and coming drivers could showcase their talent. Jimmie Johnson won the inaugural Busch Series race at the track driving the No. 92 Herzog Motorsports Chevy. In Johnson’s only Busch win, he beat Mike Skinner to the line by nearly five seconds. Three months later, he would make his Cup debut for Rick Hendrick – and we all know how that turned out.
Kevin Harvick won the first Cup event during his rookie year in the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevy driving for Richard Childress Racing five months following Dale Earnhardt’s death. Harvick defended his win the following year and has posted two wins in Nationwide Series competition.
Kyle Busch leads all competitors at the track with seven wins between Cup, Nationwide and trucks. But with Busch, Harvick and all but four Cup regulars (Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill and J.J. Yeley) sitting home this weekend, Saturday night’s race will allow the Nationwide regulars a chance to shine.
Here are five racers to watch this weekend:
1) Sam Hornish Jr. – Yes, Hornish is running a part-time schedule but he’s impressed us with his pole at Talladega, his win in the following race at Iowa Speedway and three top-five’s in just four starts this season. Of course, Hornish is force to be reckoned with in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment but prior to this year he was stout in Penske cars as well. Hornish’s average start of 3.8 and finish of 4.8 are the best in NNS. He’s completed every lap in the five events he’s raced. Oh, and did we mention his two wins at Chicago in IndyCar?
2) Brian Scott – In seven starts, Scott has yet to win but boasts two top-five’s, three top 10s and an average finish of 9.9. Scott won the pole at Chicago in 2011. He has completed 1,403 of 1,404 laps and led seven circuits.
3) Elliott Sadler – No, Sadler isn’t your average Nationwide Series driver. But with one win, two top-five’s, four top 10s and 151 laps led in nine NNS starts, the veteran racer is worth keeping an eye on. Sadler, 39, also has 10 Cup starts on the 1.5-mile track.
4) Chase Elliott –Although Elliott has yet to race a stock car at Chicagoland, his first top five was earned at Las Vegas and his first win at Texas. Elliott, who is currently third in the point standings, has acclimated quickly to the high speed tracks. If he has any issues acclimating to Chicagoland, he can lean on Kasey Kahne for help.
5) Ryan Blaney – Blaney’s only Joliet start came in a truck last year. He finished third. Blaney has already exhibited his prowess on intermediate tracks at the Nationwide level. He won at Kentucky in his 15th start and has three top-five’s and six top 10s on 1.5-mile venues. Since joining Team Penske in 2012, Blaney, 20, has an 8.18 average finish in 16 starts.