Chicagoland: Round 19 preview

* McMurray Nears Chase Position * Chicagoland Started Gordon's Top 10 Streak * Close Competition Abound In 2007 * Drivers Participate In Fourth Annual Softball Challenge McMurray's Win Propels Him Back Into Chase Contention DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

* McMurray Nears Chase Position
* Chicagoland Started Gordon's Top 10 Streak
* Close Competition Abound In 2007
* Drivers Participate In Fourth Annual Softball Challenge

McMurray's Win Propels Him Back Into Chase Contention

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 10, 2007) -- Jamie McMurray's (No. 26 Crown Royal Ford) win on Saturday night did more than return him to Victory Lane for the first time in 166 races. The victory catapulted McMurray into 13th place in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series standings, just 49 points out of 12th -- the final position in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

McMurray had struggled of late, finishing 24th or worse in three of the previous five races. However, he was able to gain 135 points on 12th place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) who finished 36th after a Lap 14 accident.

With eight races left until the Chase begins, the field is far from set. At the same point in 2005, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 USG Ford) was 16th in the standings, 202 points out of a Chase berth. He put together six top-10 finishes, including a win, heading into the Chase to earn a spot.

"I think everybody in the top 15 thinks they are going to make the Chase," McMurray said. "If you're within a couple hundred points, you feel like you can make that up. I think we're running well enough to make it, but you can't make any mistakes or have any failures."

Chicagoland Kicked Off Gordon's Top-10 Streak

Last year, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) was 12th in the standings heading to Chicagoland Speedway. After missing the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup in 2005, Gordon was determined not to miss it a second-consecutive season.

Gordon won at Chicago, holding off Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet) by 0.461 seconds. The win propelled the four-time champion to 10th place, a position he has not been below since.

The streak of consecutive weeks in the top 10 -- currently at 37 -- seems to be safe for the rest of the season. Gordon leads the series standings and is in position to make the Chase for the third time. Gordon has four wins this season, which will give him 40 bonus points once the Chase starts. He currently would be the top seed in the Chase.

While the 37-week streak is impressive, it is only the second highest active streak. Burton has been in the top 10 for 44 consecutive weeks, dating back to Darlington last May.

Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) had a 105-race streak until he finished 39th in this year's Daytona 500. The all-time leader is Dale Earnhardt, who spent 174 consecutive weeks in the top 10 from 1986-1992.

Close Finishes The Norm For 2007

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) set the tone for tight races in 2007 when he beat Mark Martin (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) to the checkered flag by 0.02 seconds in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Half of a season later, that finish -- the ninth closest since the advent of electronic timing in 1993 -- was outdone, on the same stage.

Jamie McMurray's 0.005 second victory over Kyle Busch (No. 5 Carquest/Kellogg's Chevrolet) on Saturday night tied for second-closest finish. The tightest margin involved Kyle's big brother Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), who finished second to Ricky Craven at Darlington in 2003.

Saturday's last-lap battle was as intense as the finish, as McMurray and Busch swapped the lead seven times. The close battle may be indicative of the rest of the season. In 18 races, there have been 10 finishes under one second. In addition, the average margin of victory for the season is 2.031 seconds.

Part of the reason for the close competition is the Car of Tomorrow, which has produced finishes of under one second in six of the eight races in which it has been run. The new car will be used at eight of the remaining 18 events. The next scheduled race with the car is August 12 at Watkins Glen International. <pre> Closest Finishes of 2007 Track Winner MOV (sec) Daytona (July) McMurray 0.005 * Daytona (Feb) Harvick 0.020 ** Bristol Ky. Busch 0.064 Martinsville Johnson 0.065 New Hampshire Hamlin 0.068

* Finish tied for second-closest since advent of electronic scoring in 1993 ** Finish ninth-closest since electronic scoring </pre> In The Loop: Kenseth Dominates Chicagoland Loop Statistics

If you subscribe to the "due" theory, go with Matt Kenseth at Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday.

Over the past two years at Chicagoland, Kenseth leads in just about every statistical category except one -- wins.

Kenseth finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2005, but led a race-high 176 laps. Then last year, Kenseth was leading before Jeff Gordon got into the back of his No. 17 Ford and knocked him out of contention. Kenseth again was the race's lap leader, this time with 112 laps led.

Since 2005, Kenseth sits atop the following pre-race Chicagoland Loop Data statistics, and in most instances is far and away the leader:
- Driver Rating (130.0 compared to second-place Kevin Harvick's 112.1)
- Average Running Position (3.4 to Harvick's 5.9)
- Fastest Laps Run (128 to Jeff Gordon's 52)
- Laps in the Top 15 (529 to Harvick's 499)
- Laps Led (288 to Jeff Burton 60)

The numbers certainly suggest Kenseth will visit Victory Lane sooner than later.

Harvick, with his bevy of impressive numbers, also seems in contention for the win. But so does Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt, who finished 36th at Daytona last weekend, needs a solid finish if he wants to regain some of the Race to the Chase cushion he lost after Daytona. Earnhardt sits just 49 points ahead of 13th-place Jamie McMurray. Earnhardt, though, has fared well at Chicagoland. He has the third-best Driver Rating (106.8), the seventh-best Average Running Position (9.5), the third-most Fastest Laps Run (37) and the third-most Laps in the Top 15 (473).

Jimmie Johnson is another driver who falls under the "due" category. His career Chicagoland finishes are as follows: fourth, third, second, third and sixth. He has a Driver Rating of 105.4 (fourth-best), 19 Fastest Laps Run (sixth-most), a 10.0 Average Running Position (ninth-best) and 440 Laps in the Top 15 (sixth-most).

Drivers, Celebrities Gather For Fourth Annual Softball Challenge

Several drivers will trade in the steering wheel for bats and gloves for the Fourth Annual Racin' The Bases Celebrity Softball Challenge. The charity softball game will take place at Silver Cross Field in Joliet, Ill. on July 12.

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne (No. 9 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge), Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota), Tony Raines (No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet) and J.J. Yeley (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) as well as NASCAR Busch Series drivers Regan Smith and Kevin Conway are expected to play. They will be joined by former Chicago Bulls teammates Will Purdue and Bill Wennington and members of the media for the game.

"I love the Racin' The Bases game with the media," Kyle Busch said. "It's always fun and it's for a good cause. Last year I was trying to teach some guys how to spit sunflower seeds. I love baseball and it's fun to raise money and awareness for the Victory Junction Gang Camp."

The event is put on by Chicagoland Speedway, Victory Junction Gang Camp and the Joliet Jackhammers. Over $150,000 has been raised over the past three years for the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

-credit: nascar

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Tony Raines , Jimmie Johnson , Ricky Craven , Jamie McMurray , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Brian Vickers , Regan Smith , Kevin Conway , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin