Chicagoland: Series round 19 preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Chicagoland The Real Deal: Harvick In Control Heading To Chicagoland The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins the second half of the 2010 season with Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) leading the...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Chicagoland

The Real Deal: Harvick In Control Heading To Chicagoland The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins the second half of the 2010 season with Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) leading the standings and his Richard Childress Racing teammates not far behind.

Any notion that Harvick's resurgence was cosmetic, evaporated last Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, where he nabbed his second win of 2010 and second career victory at Daytona.

Teammate Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) finished fifth and sits eighth in the standings. Though he finished 17th due to a last-laps shuffle, Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet), nearly beat the other two; he hovers just outside the top 12, in 14th place.

So it's Harvick out front as the series prepares for Saturday night's 400 at Chicagoland Speedway -- the third race in the 10-event Race to the Chase, the summer stretch that sets the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Use ink when you inscribe Harvick's name. He's not going away. But he can't be satisfied if he hopes to catch series wins leaders Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota) when it comes to Chase bonus points. Hamlin and Johnson each have five wins thus far; Harvick has two.

"With our current situation in the points, we are going to do all we can to give ourselves an opportunity to win each week," Harvick said.

His Chase competitors should note his Chicagoland record: two wins, five top fives and six top 10s. He's similarly strong in NASCAR Nationwide Series competition there, with two victories in that series.

"Every time we go back there it seems like it just fits our program and my driving style and everything that we do," said Harvick, who's enjoying a rebirth in his 10th NASCAR Sprint Cup season, all with RCR.

Thus far, he's led the standings for a career-high 13 weeks, including the last nine consecutively. The recent decision to re-sign with RCR quieted any lingering distraction, and last year's dreadful team performance (Harvick finished 19th, Burton 17th and Bowyer 15th) has turned blessing-in-disguise.

Significant in-house reorganization, the installation of Burton's former crew chief, Scott Miller, in a director of competition role, and overall rededication have yielded a serious challenge to Hendrick Motorsports' and Johnsons' four-time and reigning series champion dominance. Sustaining it is in Harvick & Company's hands.

"He's still the champion, and he's still the guy to beat," Harvick said. "For us, we've just got to keep working hard. We're in a fortunate position with the start to our season, that we've got a plan to keep working on our cars and keep trying to make things better. Hopefully when the stress starts with ten weeks to go, we'll be as ready as we've ever been from the 29 and an RCR standpoint to make a strong run at it "

Win-Win: A Look At The Top 12; Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Making News

Two races down, eight to go.

That's the current scorecard in the Race to the Chase, the 10-race summer stretch that ends with Richmond International Raceway's Sept. 11 event and sets the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

So who's stressing and who's smiling?

A glance at the Driver Standings is a good indicator. Barring unforeseen freefalls, the top five drivers -- Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) and Denny Hamlin, respectively, appear comfortable.

A peek back in the Page 1 chart tells you how they'd line up if the Chase began now. Johnson would claim the top seed over Hamlin though both have a series-high five wins; Johnson has a second-place finish in 2010 and Hamlin does not.

Drivers are seeded according to the number of wins they accumulate in the season's first 26 races (through Sept. 11 at Richmond).

Sixth-place Kyle Busch (No. 18 Snickers Toyota), who has two wins, certainly seeks to solidify his status and move up the standings. No current top-12 driver below Busch has won yet in 2010, and Gordon is the only driver among the current top five who hasn't won. He'd start sixth if the Chase began now.

Heading toward Saturday's 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Gordon, who's been on the cusp of winning several times this season, also approaches two milestones. He's due to make his 600th career series start, all consecutive, and if he doesn't reach Victory Lane, he'll set a new winless streak mark (48 races). His current streak of 47 races without a victory ties his career longest streak.

Another notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) is back in the top 12, in 11th, after a seventh-place finish last week at Daytona. Earnhardt and his team have struggled at times in 2010, but show recent signs of rejuvenation.

Only seven points behind Earnhardt, Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Silver Ford) holds the 12th and final Chase-eligible spot. Mark Martin (No. 5 Chevrolet) trails him by 39 points and the spacing thickens below Martin.

Clint Bowyer, 14th, trails Martin by a mere 10 points. Ryan Newman (No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet) trails Bowyer by 31 points.

On The NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference: Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and a two-time winner at Chicagoland (2004, '07), was the guest on Tuesday's NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference.

Following are some excerpts.

Q: Talk about your steady climb back into the top 12, especially after some tough early-season finishes.

A: "I don't know that there's been one particular thing that has really changed it all for us. We've just been working hard. It's kind of like last year. We had a great first half of the season, then just kind of fell off. We didn't really feel like we were doing anything different. We just weren't hitting on the things that we needed to in the fall to keep us good.

"I think it's kind of worked the opposite way this year so far. We just weren't finding the things to make the car happy. As time is going on, every week we're just learning a little more about what to do to get the feel in the car that I like. It's been working out.

"We weren't happy where we were at in the points. I'm still not really comfortable where we're at in the point standings right now, but we're definitely making gains for sure."

Q: Is there a likelihood Stewart-Haas will expand to a third team next year?

A: "I would say there's probably a zero percent chance we'll expand to a third team for next year. We're still trying to fill the void when Old Spice changes this year. We're talking to a lot of great people. There's a lot of good opportunities out there. It's just a matter of finding a package that works for somebody to fill our spot. There's still races we're trying to take care of on Ryan's car.

"The hard part about it is, it just takes funding. We could be up to a four-car team very quickly. But it takes the funding to get it done."

Q. You've won two races at Chicagoland. Is it a special place for you?

A: "it's a great race for us. We've got two tracks that are very close to home, basically a couple weeks away from each other. But a lot of our friends and family, a lot of our friends that are from Wisconsin and Illinois get a chance to come to watch us there. It makes for a really cool weekend.

"Actually, it's not quite as busy as when we got to Indianapolis, so we get to spend a little more time with our friends that we don't get to see often from that area. We like it. I'm very appreciative the track took the time and put the lights in. I think it's added a lot to our race. Looking forward to a great weekend there. "

Q. Do lights change how you race at Chicagoland?

A: "It does give the track more grip. Obviously, the cooler the track temperature is, the better grip that we have in the car. We definitely get to run faster. But it's the same for everybody. I wish I could say that when the sun goes down at the end of the day, we're the only ones that benefit from it.

"I think there's something about watching Cup cars racing at night. If the cars bottom out, you see the sparks. That's an aspect you don't normally get to see during a daytime race. I just think it just adds to the excitement. I always thought night races were just more exciting in general."

Illinois Native Fred Lorenzen One Of Five New NASCAR Hall Of Fame Nominees

Last week's announcement of nominees for the 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame class included one name familiar to Chicago-area race fans.

Fred Lorenzen, a native of Elmhurst, Ill., is one of five new additions to the nominee list. He's considered one of the sport's first true superstars and has the credentials to back it up.

During his heyday, NASCAR fans could choose from three nicknames -- "Golden Boy", "Fearless Freddie" and the "Elmhurst Express."

Lorenzen competed from 1956-1972, finishing with 26 wins and 32 poles in 158 career starts, all despite competing part-time on some occasions. He entered only 16 of 1964's 62 races, but won eight -- including five consecutive -- to finish 13th in the final standings.

The 1965 season may have been Lorenzen's finest. He won both the Daytona 500 and the World 600 -- two of the sport's "major events" -- that year.

Lorenzen retired from NASCAR in 1967, at age 33. He made a brief comeback from 1970- 72, failing to win again, but he did collect two poles and 11 top-five finishes.

He was named one of NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers" in 1998, during the sport's 50th anniversary season.

Still residing in his native state, in Oakwood, Ill., Lorenzen will celebrate his 76th birthday on Dec. 30.

NSCS, Etc.

Milestones: Jeff Gordon will make his 600th series start in Saturday's 400. Even more remarkable? He's done it consecutively.

Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford) and Bobby Labonte (No. 09 Phoenix Construction Chevrolet) continue quests for career marks -- Martin for his 50th series pole, Kenseth for his 100th top five and Labonte for his 200th top 10.

Stanley Cup Champions In The House: Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith will perform Grand Marshal duties for Sunday's 400. No doubt a popular choice, Keith was a force in the Hawks' 2010 Stanley Cup title run. The 6-foot-1 Canadian became the first player to win the Stanley Cup, an Olympic Gold medal and the NHL's Norris Trophy (best overall performance) in the same season. He'll be joined in his honorary duties by the Blackhawks' anthem singer, Jim Cornelison, who will sing the anthem prior to Saturday night's event.

Stewart Goes "Back To School": And it's all for a good cause. The two-time series champion and two-time Chicagoland winner will carry a special paint scheme on his No. 14 Chevrolet this weekend. It's a playful version of a back-toschool shopping list on the hood, but more importantly, Stewart will partner with the Office Depot Foundation to donate 4,200 backpacks to kids in need during a "Back-to-School Backpack Celebration" at a local Office Depot store in Chicago.

Ultimately, Stewart will help distribute more than 300,000 backpacks to kids across the country during back-to-school shopping season.

NASCAR In Minnesota: Again, for a good cause. NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Filtrete Ford), Clint Bowyer and AJ Allmendinger (No. 43 Geek Squad Ford), along with NASCAR Nationwide Series stalwart Jason Leffler, will race in a Dirt Late Model exhibition at Minnesota's Elko Speedway on Thursday.

Before the race, they'll greet fans at Minneapolis' Mall of America. The occasion is the inaugural "Minnesota Motorsports Teams Give Back" charity event, which benefits five nonprofit organizations (Minnesota Military Families Foundation, Greg Biffle Foundation and three chapters of Victory Junction Gang Camp).

And In Delaware: Before journeying to Minnesota, Leffler will team with Kyle Busch and David Reutimann (No. 00 TUMS Toyota) to race Late Models in Wednesday's 50-lap Summer Showdown at Delaware (Ont.) Speedway. The field includes track points leader Ron Sheridan, ranked in the top 25 in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national standings.

Up Next: Indianapolis

The Race to the Chase c o n t i n u e s (following an off week) with one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' marquee events -- The Brickyard 400 at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Sunday, July 25 at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN).

It's a targeted event both for location and significance. Of the 16 series races this far at Indianapolis, the eventual series champion has won eight, including four out of the last five (Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson in '06, '08 and '09).

Then there's the facility, its environs considered hallowed ground for racing enthusiasts along with the atmosphere and fan support.

Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with four wins at Indianapolis, followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Johnson, who has three.

Stewart and Dale Jarrett, the 1999 series champion, each have two wins there.

Gordon rules most other critical statistics -- most Coors Light Poles (three), top fives (nine) and top 10s (13).

And thanks to his and Johnson's combined Indianapolis success, Rick Hendrick leads all team owners with seven wins there. His closest competitor is Joe Gibbs of Joe Gibbs Racing who has three victories.

Fast Facts

The Race: 400
The Place: Chicagoland Speedway (1.5- mile oval)

The Date: Saturday, July 10
The Time: 7:30 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 400.5 miles/267 laps

TV: TNT, 6:30 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN & Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128. (Local: US 99.5 FM)

2009 Polesitter: Brian Vickers
2009 Winner: Mark Martin

Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Friday -- Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 2:15-3 p.m. Qualifying, 5:05 p.m. (CT)

-source: nascar

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , David Reutimann , Ron Sheridan , Brian Vickers , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , Fred Lorenzen
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing