Chicagoland: News of note, schedule

* Dale Earnhardt Jr., Looks to Repeat at Chicagoland -- Site of Race No. 2 in the Race to the Chase * Standings Tighten Up As Season's Mid-Way Point Approaches NEWS AND NOTES Dale Jr. Looks to Repeat at Chicagoland ... What a difference a...

* Dale Earnhardt Jr., Looks to Repeat at Chicagoland -- Site of Race No. 2 in the Race to the Chase

* Standings Tighten Up As Season's Mid-Way Point Approaches

NEWS AND NOTES

Dale Jr. Looks to Repeat at Chicagoland ... What a difference a year has made for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). This time last year, Earnhardt was mired in 16th place in the points standings and was definitely on the outside when it came to competing for a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Heading into Sunday's race at Chicagoland, where he is the defending champion, Earnhardt has moved up to a season-best third place in the standings. Over the past three races, he has jumped three spots in the standings. Despite a disappointing 13th-place finish last Saturday at Daytona, Earnhardt was philosophical when summing up his latest performance.

"I feel good about where we're at," he said. "We still need to get better. We obviously couldn't hang with Tony (Stewart) and the guys up front Saturday night at Daytona. But we got out of there with little harm done, and even climbed a spot or two in the points. We're racing big-picture here, one race at a time."

Last year's win at Chicagoland was Earnhardt's lone trip to Victory Lane in 2005, a year in which he finished a career-low 19th in the standings and didn't make the Chase. While Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford) dominated that race a year ago, leading 176 of 267 laps, Earnhardt picked up the win thanks in large part to a late pit stop strategy that saw his car only take two tires while Kenseth's crew opted for a full four-tire change.

Thus far, Earnhardt has picked up one win (at Richmond), while posting seven top-10s and five top-five finishes. His third-place showing last month at Michigan International Speedway, a layout similar to Chicagoland, instilled renewed confidence in the No. 8 team's ability to perform at the 1.5- to two-mile tracks.

"In The Loop" -- Track Data Shows Kenseth Dominates Pre-Race Chicagoland Statistics ... NASCAR's new Loop Data statistics -- derived from electronic scoring loops imbedded around race tracks -- indicate that Kenseth, who had the most dominate car last July at Chicagoland, also is dominating pre-race statistics. Heading into Sunday's race, Kenseth leads seven Loop Data categories, including Fastest Driver in Turns 1, 2, 3 and 4; Fastest Driver Early in a Run; Fastest Driver Late in a Run; and Driver Rating (144.6).

Earnhardt Jr.'s rise in the standings go hand-in-hand with a significant category in the Loop Data statistics -- Percentage of Laps Run on the Lead Lap. He leads that category, having run 4,879 of his season-to-date total of 5,049 laps on the lead lap -- a series-high 96.63 percent.

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) continues to lead the standings and also is the series leader in Best Average Finish (8.5) and Average Running Position (10.857).

Series Standings Tighten Up ... With nine races remaining in the Race to the Chase, the standings reflect the calendar's urgency.

Kenseth's fifth-place finish at Daytona, his 11th top-10 effort this season, moved him within eight points of leader Jimmie Johnson. That's the closest margin between first and second since after the fifth race of the year, when Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) trailed Kenseth by eight points.

Six of the top 10 drivers are separated by 25 points or less, while three positions in the top 10 are separated by just eight points or less. Only 14 points separate 10th and 12th place.

A Closer Look at Chicagoland ... Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have recorded four straight top-five finishes at Chicagoland and are tied for the longest current streak. Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard Ford) and Johnson have posted three straight top-10 starts and likewise are tied for the longest current streak. Johnson has a 3.0 average finishing position at Chicagoland, tops among drivers with more than one start there.

None of the previous five race winners have come from a top-five starting position. There have been five different Budweiser Pole winners in the five-year history of Chicagoland. Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet) is a two-time winner at Chicagoland, visiting Victory Lane in 2001 and 2002.

A Closer Look at the Top 10 ... Jimmie Johnson has ranked in the top 10 for 86 consecutive races, dating back to March, 2004. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet has a series-high 13 top-10 finishes this season.

Kenseth is right on Johnson's heels, thanks to his series-high 10 top-five finishes. Currently a solid second in the standings, Kenseth found himself in a completely different scenario a year ago, ranking 19th in points this time last season.

Kahne has a series-high four victories this year and is fourth in the standings. A year ago, he was mired in 21st place. Kahne hopes to reverse his fortunes at Chicagoland this weekend, as he has recorded a pair of DNFs (36th and 41st) in his two previous races there. Kyle Busch (No. 5 CarQuest Chevrolet) is coming off a season-best second-place finish at Daytona, which allowed him to jump four spots in the standings, from 12th to eighth.

Pit Crew Spotlight: Chad Knaus ... One can find nearly 20 Illinois natives hard at work each weekend in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup garage, including Chad Knaus (Rockford, Ill.), crew chief for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team.

The 2006 season marks Knaus' fifth year with the No. 48 team. He has helped Johnson finish in the top five all four seasons and Johnson currently leads the standings heading into Chicagoland. Knaus began his crew chief career in 2000 with Melling Racing and driver Stacy Compton. Prior to that, he worked as a tire changer for Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet).

John Darby, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Director, also hails from Rockford. Other Illinois natives include: Keith Armstrong (No. 42 tire specialist) from Viola; Dave Atkins (No. 21 spotter) from Dekalb; Tom Busch (No. 5 spotter) from Geneva; Bryan Dunaway (No. 16 rear tire carrier) from Momence; Toby Hallett (No. 48 transporter driver) from Homer; Eric Maycroft (No. 10 front tire changer) from Chicago; Ted Johnson (No. 22 spotter) from Peoria; Andy Kruep (No. 24 mechanic) from Breese; Carroll Luft (No. 88 engine tuner) from West Point; Todd Nelson (No. 31 engineer) from Morton; Jim Pohlman (No. 40 car chief) from Oak Lawn; Roger Purcell (No. 11 engine tuner) from Latham; and Andy Spenner (No. 31 mechanic) from Hoyleton.

Setting The USG Sheetrock 400 Field: Top 35 In 2006 Owner Points "Locked In" ... Each week in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, teams ranked in the top 35 of the current car owner point standings are guaranteed starting positions, creating a "bubble" between the top 35 and those teams on the downside of 35th, trying to reach that position. ... This week, the No. 14 Waste Management Chevrolet, owned by Nelson Bowers and driven by Sterling Marlin, once again has the final "locked in" slot and has a good chance at retaining it, thanks to a 93-point lead over the 36th team in the standings, the No. 40 Lone Star Steakhouse Dodge owned by Felix Sabates and driven by David Stremme. The No. 40, the first team on the wrong side of the bubble, will have to make the USG Sheetrock 400 field based on qualifying time -- as will those teams behind the No. 40 in the owner points.

Chevy Keeping, Building Lead ... Boosted by back-to-back victories (Jeff Gordon at Infineon and Tony Stewart at Daytona), Chevrolet maintains a comfortable lead in the Manufacturers' Championship point standings, with its 123 points leading Dodge (101) and Ford (99). Chevrolet drivers have posted nine victories on the season, followed by Dodge with five and Ford with three. Dodge won just three NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races in 2003.

Rookie Update ... Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Kinko's Chevrolet) continues to lead this year's Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings. Hamlin moved back into 10th place in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings following his 17th-place finish at Daytona. He has been the highest finishing rookie in nine of 17 races this season. Hamlin tops the rookie standings with 194 points, followed by Clint Bowyer (No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet) with 166, Reed Sorenson (No. 41 Target Dodge) with 151, Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) with 146 and J.J. Yeley (No. 18 Vesicare/GSK Chevrolet) with 139. ...

Where In The World Is Ken Schrader? ... If it has gas, four tires and faces a green flag, Ken Schrader (No. 21 Little Debbie Ford) will hop in the cockpit and drive it. The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' oldest -- and arguably the busiest -- competitor just can't resist racing, driving in a variety of series each season, despite the inherent demands of NASCAR's top series.

The chart below illustrates the hectic nature of Schrader's schedule thus far this year. This week, in addition to the USG Sheetrock 400, he was scheduled to race July 4th at Highland (Ill.) Speedway; July 5th at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind.; and July 7th at Kankakee (Ill.) Motor Speedway. Additionally, on July 6th, Schrader is scheduled for a Little Debbie appearance at the Sears/Kmart Headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Schrader's 2006 race totals to date
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series -- 17
NASCAR Busch Series -- 6
Budweiser Shootout -- 1
Copper World -- 2
Short track (dirt, late-model, etc.) -- 27

From The Archives: Chicagoland Speedway Begins Its Sixth Season ... Chicagoland Speedway opened in 2001, hosting the first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series event to be staged in the Chicago area since 1956. That event was held at legendary Soldier Field. A flat, half-mile track was laid out around the football field and had been in use for several years by a local group led by motorsports star Andy Granatelli. The NASCAR-sanctioned event was 100 miles and 200 laps in length and featured a field of 25 cars. NASCAR legends such as Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Speedy Thompson and Buck Baker, along with local heroes like Sal Tovella, Joy Fair, Tom Pistone and a very young Fred Lorenzen also competed.

Billy Myers took the pole position with Herb Thomas starting outside on the front row. Roberts started in the third spot and jumped into the lead at the green flag. He went on to lead every lap and pick up his third career win.

This Week's Sidebars ... Will Ferrell, star of the upcoming Columbia Pictures' NASCAR-themed film -- "Talladega Nights -- The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," will serve as the Grand Marshal for this Sunday's race. Ferrell's co-stars in the film -- John C. Reilly, Michael Clarke Duncan and Leslie Bibb -- will be honorary guests at the race. The film will be released Aug. 4.

A host of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup and NASCAR Busch Series drivers will join former Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion quarterback Jim McMahon in the "Racin' the Bases Celebrity Softball Challenge" on Thursday at Silver Cross Field in Joliet, Ill. The charity event begins at 6:15 p.m. Proceeds from the game will benefit Victory Junction Gang Camp -- one of NASCAR's recognized charities.

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers will travel to Indianapolis early next week to participate in their fifth official scheduled test of the season. The three-day test is set for July 10-12 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Drivers may test on two of the three days. NASCAR Public Relations will release an interview schedule later this week. The final NASCAR NEXTEL Cup test session is set for Oct. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

On Deck: LENOX Industrial Tools 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway ... The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series begins the season's second half on July 16 with the running of the LENOX Industrial Tools 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H. TNT's telecast begins at 1:30 p.m. (EDT), with the start of the race set for 2:10 p.m. (EDT). Tony Stewart is the defending champion. Brian Vickers (No. 25 GMAC Chevrolet) is the defending pole winner.

Fast Facts

The race: USG Sheetrock 400 (Race No. 18 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season)

The place: Chicagoland Speedway

The date/time: Sunday, July 9, 3:35 p.m. (EDT)

TV: TNT (3 p.m., EDT)
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite

Posted awards: $5,934,007

Race length: 400 miles, 267 laps
Track layout: 1.5-mile tri-oval

2005 winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10: 1. Jimmie Johnson 2,501. 2. Matt Kenseth 2,493. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,234. 4. Kasey Kahne 2,209. 5. Tony Stewart 2,202. 6. Mark Martin 2,177. 7. Jeff Burton 2,152. 8. Kyle Busch 2,095. 9. Kevin Harvick 2,088. 10. Denny Hamlin 2,048.

Practice/Qualifying Schedule: Friday -- Practice, 12:05 -- 1:35 p.m., Qualifying, 3:40 p.m. Saturday -- Practice, 9-10 a.m., and 10:35-11:20 a.m.

-nascar-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Ken Schrader , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Sterling Marlin , Stacy Compton , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Martin Truex Jr. , Brian Vickers , Clint Bowyer , Denny Hamlin , Chad Knaus , Felix Sabates , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , Lee Petty , Fred Lorenzen