Chicagoland: Round 20 preview

*Then And Now: Keselowski Celebrates First Year With JRM *Chicagoland Embraces The 'Night Life' *In The Loop: Burton Brings 121.4 Driver Rating To Chicago *Team Rensi Owners Rensi, Weisbaum Return To Home Track *Chapter One Of Keselowski's Success...

*Then And Now: Keselowski Celebrates First Year With JRM
*Chicagoland Embraces The 'Night Life'
*In The Loop: Burton Brings 121.4 Driver Rating To Chicago
*Team Rensi Owners Rensi, Weisbaum Return To Home Track
*Chapter One Of Keselowski's Success Story Written At Chicago

The Cubs aren't the only turnaround story in Chicago over the last year.

Add the remarkable journey of Brad Keselowski (No. 88 U.S. NAVY Chevrolet) as part of Windy City lore during that span.

Keselowski, a third-generation driver, got his start in racing working in the garage of his family- owned NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team. He ran eight races in 2004 then returned for a full-schedule the next season.

Late in 2006, Keselowski moved up the NASCAR ladder to drive for Keith Coleman Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. But after what turned out to be an unlucky 13 races, the team suspended operations in June, 2007.

Two weeks later, he got a call from Germain Racing to replace the suspended Ted Musgrave in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Memphis. After grabbing the pole, he led 62 laps and contended for the win until a spin on Lap 190 of the 200-lap event took him out of contention.

But his strong showing caught the eye of JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. who happened to be looking for a new driver.

Keselowski became that driver for a three-race deal beginning at Chicago. His debut resulted in a solid 14th-place finish. The three-race deal turned into a late-season run where Keselowski responded with five top-10 finishes in his remaining 13 races.

Now in his first full-time season, he's shown steady improvement with his first win (Kentucky), his first pole (Milwaukee), a second-place ranking in the standings and six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 19 races.

"It's been quite a year," he said. "Now we're coming back to Chicagoland and it's just incredible to look back and see how far we've come.

"I got together with the No. 88 team at a time when we both needed to make something happen. Now we're running up front consistently and battling for a championship. It's exactly what we were all looking to accomplish."

NASCAR Nationwide Series Ushers In Night Racing At Chicago

The NASCAR Nationwide Series helps Chicagoland make history Friday with the first night race in the eight-year history of the track.

When the 2008 schedule was unveiled, Chicagoland revealed its plans for night racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events. Both races moved up one day from their previous Saturday -- Sunday day slots that had been on the calendar since 2001.

Race history shows a strong chance for a first-time series winner. Four drivers have collected their first win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Chicagoland, including two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson who won the first race at the 1.5-mile track in 2001.

It was the second of Johnson's two full-time seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the victory remains his lone win in series competition in 88 races.

Other first-time series winners at Chicagoland include Johnny Sauter (2002), Justin Labonte (2004) and Casey Mears (2006).

Team Rensi Owners Rensi, Weisbaum Return To Home Track

He's still searching for his own home win at Nashville, but Bobby Hamilton Jr. (No. 25 Smithfield Ford) has already provided his team with a hometown victory.

Hamilton's Team Rensi Motorsports co-owners, Ed Rensi and Gary Weisbaum are Windy City natives, and Hamilton produced a win for the tandem at Chicago in 2003.

Rensi, the former President & CEO of McDonalds, resides in Downers Grove Ill. Weisbaum, a graduate of Northern Illinois University, formed a marketing agency in Vernon Hills, Ill., before becoming involved in motorsports in 1992. He joined Rensi in 1999 to form one of the longest-standing series-only owner relationships.

Other Illinois natives in the NASCAR Nationwide Series garage include: Matt Swiderski (Chicago) -- No. 2 Chevrolet engineer; Ramie Jones (Olney) -- No. 32 Toyota engineer; Bill Cole (Milan) -- No. 88 Chevrolet transporter driver; Joey Forgette (Springfield) -- No. 11 Chevrolet front-tire changer; Lee Bob Cunningham (Forreston) -- No. 99 Toyota mechanic / eighth man.

No 'Sophomore Slump' For Ragan

David Ragan (No. 6 Discount Tire Ford), the 2007 Raybestos Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, is proving not everyone has a "sophomore slump."

Ragan finished last year with two top fives and three top 10s, earning fifth place in the standings. But at the halfway point this year, he's already bettered his 2007 performance with two top fives and four top 10s and is already fifth in the standings with 16 races left.

Ragan is a double-duty driver using the NASCAR Nationwide Series to supplement his NASCAR Sprint Cup learning curve. One of the surprises in the premier series Ragan, 22, is in 15th in the standings, 102 points out of the 12th and final spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

No. 20 Goes For 10

Different driver, same opportunity for Dave Rogers and the crew of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

After leading the team to its ninth win of the season last week at Daytona with Denny Hamlin behind the wheel, Tony Stewart takes his turn Friday night at Chicago with Old Spice as the sponsor. Two other drivers have competed in the No. 20 this year.

Stewart has run the last two seasons at Chicago in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition, bringing home a top-10 finish in both.

A 10th win would be significant to series history. When Sam Ard set the series record with 10 wins in 1983 in the No. 00 Oldsmobile, he did so driving for team owner Howard Thomas.

Stewart leads the series in wins (five) and has a pre-race Driver Rating of 100.0 heading to Chicago.

NASCAR Foundation, Nationwide Join Together For Blood & Marrow Drive

The NASCAR Foundation and series sponsor Nationwide Insurance encourage fans to roll up their sleeves and sign up to become donors at participating locations as part of the Third Annual Blood & Marrow Drive Presented by Nationwide on Sept. 11.

A partnership between The NASCAR Foundation, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, the Hendrick Marrow Program and 26 NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Camping World Series West tracks, the event is the largest of its kind in the motorsports industry, and since 2006, has collected enough pints of blood and marrow donor names to potentially save more than 16,000 lives.

In The Loop: Burton Looks To Trade Five Third-Place Finishes At Chicago For A Win

Jeff Burton chooses his races wisely.

He returns to the No. 29 Holiday Inn Chevrolet at Chicagoland after a six-race layoff. The statistics show why Burton chooses it for his NASCAR Nationwide Series return -- he's run five races there in his series career and all five have resulted in third-place finishes.

That statistical oddity is backed up with some of the top-ranked Loop Data in the series. Over the last two Chicago races, Burton owns series-high marks in Driver Rating (121.4), Average Running Position (4.1) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage (97.8%). He also ranks third in Fastest Laps Run with 45.

A couple of the "usual suspects" should join Burton at the front of the pack -- most notably two-time series champion Kevin Harvick (No. 33 Camping World Chevrolet) and reigning series champion Carl Edwards (No. 60 World Financial Group Ford). They rank in the top five of most Loop Data stats over the past three years.

Harvick has a Driver Rating of 121.2 (second), an Average Running Position of 5.7 (second), 34 Fastest Laps Run (fifth) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 97.7% (second).

Edwards owns a series-high 78 Fastest Laps Run, along with a Driver Rating of 115.5 and an Average Running Position of 6.4.

The Director's Take: History Aside, Night Racing At Chicago Brings Challenges

The NASCAR Nationwide Series has the honor of running the first night race at Chicago but that distinction presents challenges according to series director Joe Balash.

"Teams will have to change the way they go about setting up their cars based on all past history being daytime races," he said.

"There will be the same issues we have at other tracks with the grip levels changing from daytime practices to evening races. As the track cools off, you get a little more grip so teams will have to predict the changes in their cars."

Chicagoland Speedway
Most Wins: Kevin Harvick, 2
Most Poles: Ryan Newman, 2
Quick Fact: First of two straight races in Ill.

NNS Etc.

Robert Richardson, Jr. (No. 23 Chevrolet)is scheduled to throw out the first pitch Tuesday night at the Continental Baseball League All-Star Game in his hometown of McKinney, Texas.

Richardson will make the honorary first pitch to get the game underway at 8 p.m. CST. The CBL is a newly-formed independent pro league and the All-Star game will be played at The Gabe at the Ballfields at Craig Ranch in McKinney.

Toyota won its 13th race of the season last Saturday and continued to build its lead in the Bill France Performance Cup standings.

But each manufacturer other than Toyota has at least one win at Chicago led by Chevrolet with four, including Kevin Harvick's win last year. Dodge has two wins at Chicago while Ford has one.

Clauson Takes Control Of Raybestos Rookie Standings

The mid-way point of the season is a good time to check how the series' new faces have faired thus far. Bryan Clauson (No. 40 Fastenal Dodge) is one of the new drivers who is beginning to stand out.

Clauson posted his first career pole at Daytona last weekend and went on to finish 19th -- the highest-finishing rookie of the race. This season Clauson has one top-five and two top-10 finishes.

What's impressive about Clauson, 19, is that he has produced on a limited schedule. He's had to share the No. 40 with fellow rookie Dario Franchitti.

However, with Franchitti's duties at Chip Ganassi Racing wtih Felix Sabates unresolved, Clauson looks to have the opportunity to gain more experience during the season's second half.

Up Next: Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 At Gateway International Raceway

The second half of the NASCAR Nationwide Series stand-alone season gets underway next Saturday, July 19 at Gateway International Raceway.

Last year, Reed Sorenson joined two-time series champions Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick as the only drivers to have two wins at the track in series competition.

Scott Wimmer is the defending pole winner at Gateway while another two-time series champion, Martin Truex Jr., is the only driver to have captured two poles there, doing so in consecutive seasons (2004-05).

FAST FACTS

The Race: Dollar General 300 Powered By Coca-Cola
The Place: Chicagoland Speedway

The Date: Friday, July 11
The Time: 7 p.m. ET

The Distance: 300 miles / 200 laps
Track Size: 1.5-mile paved

TV: ESPN, 7 p.m. ET

2007 Winner: Kevin Harvick
2007 Pole: Denny Hamlin

Schedule
Thursday--Practice 2:30-3:50 p.m.; Final Practice 6-7:25 p.m.
Friday--Qualifying, 2:35 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR XFINITY
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Bobby Hamilton , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Dario Franchitti , Ted Musgrave , Jimmie Johnson , Justin Labonte , Johnny Sauter , Scott Wimmer , Martin Truex Jr. , Carl Edwards , Chip Ganassi , Brad Keselowski , David Ragan , Denny Hamlin , Reed Sorenson , Bryan Clauson , Robert Richardson Jr. , Bob Lee , Felix Sabates
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Germain Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing , JRM Racing , JR Motorsports