This Week in Auto Racing September 16 - 18

The 10-race Chase begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, as 12 drivers are set to battle for the 2011 Sprint Cup Series championship. The Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series are also at Chicago. IndyCar travels overseas to Motegi, Japan for the final time.


Sprint Cup Series

GEICO 400 - Chicagoland Speedway - Joliet, IL

For the first time, Chicagoland Speedway will host the opening round in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. New Hampshire began the Chase each year since NASCAR began its playoff format in 2004. Chicagoland had been scheduled in July each season from 2001-10.

Just 12 points separate first-seed Kyle Busch from 12th-place Denny Hamlin, who is Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Busch earned the top seed based on his four wins for the year so far. He also concluded the regular season as the points leader.

"Right now, we just want to keep going with how we've been doing all year, keep the consistency going, hopefully run strong at these first few Chase races to get a good foundation built up and see who the players are going to be, then race a little harder when we get down to the final four or five," he said.

Busch won at Chicagoland in 2008 but has finished 17th and 33rd in the last two races here.

Kevin Harvick's win in the regular-season-finale last Saturday at Richmond gave him a boost heading into the Chase. Harvick's fourth win of the season earned him the second seed.

"It definitely helps," he said. "We had a little bit of a rough summer, and we got a little bit off of our game. I think a lot of that came from winning so many races early. We were able to try so many things and a lot of them, well most all of them, didn't work. We went back to what we know over the last couple of weeks, and we've had top-five cars and to get the win at Richmond gives us a lot of momentum going into the next 10 weeks."

Harvick and Tony Stewart, who's also in the Chase, are the only drivers with multiple Sprint Cup wins at Chicagoland. Harvick won the first two races here from 2001-02. Stewart's victories at this track came in '04 and '07. He starts the Chase in the ninth spot.

Sixth-seed Jimmie Johnson begins his quest for a record-extending sixth straight series championship. Chicagoland is one of five tracks on the current Cup schedule where Johnson has yet to win. Homestead, Kentucky, Michigan and Watkins Glen are the others.

Johnson has won at his home track in California a record five times, but he would love nothing more than to give his crew chief, Chad Knaus, a win in his home state. Knaus is a Rockford, IL native.

"I think the Chicago area and the racetrack are going to be a great host for the start of the Chase," Johnson said. "I've been close to victory there a few times. We've always run well and led laps there. I really want to win there for the fact that it is in the Chase and also for Chad. We've been able to win a lot at my home track. I owe him a couple there [Chicagoland], and I need to get him one before long."

Johnson has scored seven top-10 finishes in nine starts at Chicagoland. He finished 25th here last season. Johnson's first and only Nationwide Series win so far came in the inaugural race at Chicagoland a decade ago. He drove for Herzog Motorsports at the time.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is in the Chase for the first time in three years, starting from the tenth spot. Earnhardt Jr. had a strong start to the season but has faltered somewhat in the past few months, as he barely made the playoffs.

"We had a pretty good run at it for the first 15 races, and for whatever reason, we sort of fell off and forgot some things or over-engineered something," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But we need to look hard at what we're doing, what we've been doing, sort of a pattern, find something within what we're trying to maybe harness or hampering our ability to drive the cars as well as I want to drive them."

Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak in the series now stands at 119 races. He won at Chicagoland in 2005.

Other Chase drivers who have won at this track include: Ryan Newman (2003) and Jeff Gordon (2006).

David Reutimann, a non-Chase driver, won this race last year. Reutimann grabbed the lead for good following a late-race round of green-flag pit stops. He then held off Carl Edwards during the final laps for his second career win in the series. His first victory came in May 2009 at Charlotte, a race cut short due to rain.

Forty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the GEICO 400.

Nationwide Series

Dollar General 300 - Chicagoland Speedway - Joliet, IL

The Nationwide Series runs at Chicagoland Speedway for the second time this season on Saturday. With seven races to go, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. holds a 16- point lead over Elliott Sadler and a 45-point advantage over Reed Sorenson.

While Stenhouse and his No.6 Roush Fenway Racing team are attempting to win the driver's championship, Jack Roush is also hoping to capture the owner's title with the No.60 car, usually driven by Carl Edwards.

Right now, Joe Gibbs Racing's No.18 team holds a comfortable 48-point lead over the No.60. Joe Gibbs is aiming for his record fourth straight owner's championship in the series. His 20 team captured the title in 2008, and the 18 took it in '09 and '10.

Stenhouse's team is currently 100 points out of the lead in the owner standings.

Kyle Busch normally drives the 18 car but teammate Joey Logano is taking over that seat this weekend. It's the first time Logano will drive the 18 since 2008 at Michigan, where he finished seventh. Ryan Truex will be behind the wheel of the 20 car at Chicagoland.

"It will be weird to climb in the window of the car and see the 18 on the side instead of the 20," Logano said. "But that is what we need to do as an organization to help the 18 team win the owner's championship. This team has had a lot of great runs this year and won a lot of races with Kyle. Hopefully, we can go out there and get another win and help extend that points lead."

Either Busch or Logano has won the last three Nationwide races at Chicagoland.

Busch, the winner of last Friday's race at Richmond, is slated for just three more Nationwide events this season -- Charlotte, Texas and Homestead. Edwards is scheduled to compete in all of the remaining races.

Justin Allgaier, a Riverton, IL native, won the June 4 race at Chicagoland. Since then, Allgaier's season has taken somewhat of a downward turn. He is presently fifth in points (-75).

"Anytime you go to your home racetrack, it raises your spirits and gives you extra incentive to go out and run well," he said.

Forty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Dollar General 300.

Camping World Truck Series

Fast Five 225 - Chicagoland Speedway - Joliet, IL

The Camping World Truck Series kicks off NASCAR's triple-header weekend at Chicagoland Speedway on Friday. Teams will practice in the morning, qualifying in the afternoon and then race at night.

When the series ran its most recent race two weeks ago at Atlanta, teams practiced and qualified in hot conditions during the daytime but raced in cooler temperatures that night. Teams will not be faced with the same conditions at Chicagoland, where air temperatures will be much lower than Atlanta. The expected high on Friday in Joliet is near 60 degrees under mostly cloudy skies.

"The track conditions at Chicagoland don't seem to change much from day to night," driver/owner Kyle Busch said. "You gain some grip when the temperatures get cooler, but the balance of your truck remains pretty consistent. At Atlanta, it was really hot during practice, the track was very slick, and as practiced progressed, we weren't able to get a feel for the changes we were making. Once you reached a certain point in practice, you were just out there making laps. This weekend, we'll be able to use the practice time in the morning to make quality laps and really dial in our truck for the race."

Busch has won the first two truck races at Chicagoland. The series made its first visit here in 2009. Busch and Harvick are those Sprint Cup Series regulars competing in this event.

Kevin Harvick Inc. comes to Chicagoland with a four-race winning streak in the series. Harvick won at Pocono, Michigan and Bristol during the month of August, while Ron Hornaday Jr. claimed his record-extending 49th career truck victory at Atlanta.

After his 10th-place finish at Atlanta, James Buescher captured the points lead for the first time in his career. Johnny Sauter entered the race with a seven-point advantage over Buescher, but Sauter finished 22 laps behind in 29th after making contact with the wall two separate times. He is now 12 points out of the lead.

"We need to keep our blinders on for the next ten weeks and continue to do what we have done all season, which is focus on our race," Buescher said. "We haven't focused on what everyone else is doing, which has allowed us to zone in on what works for us at Turner Motorsports. I am so proud of these guys and what we have accomplished as a group. We will continue to run our race and will see where we are when Homestead [season-ending race] comes around."

Thirty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Fast Five 225.


Indy Japan: The Final - Twin Ring Motegi (road course) - Motegi, Japan

The IZOD IndyCar Series will race in Japan this weekend, six months after the country was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami and a radiation fallout from a badly damaged nuclear power plant, resulting from the quake.

It's the ninth and final time the series will compete in Japan. The race had been contested on the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval, but the oval sustained damage from the earthquake, making it unsuitable for racing. Therefore, the event will be held on Twin Ring Motegi's 2.983-mile road course.

Recent aftershocks and continued high radiation levels from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which is located roughly 90 miles from Twin Ring Motegi, have generated safety concerns from IndyCar drivers, particularly Danica Patrick.

"Heck yeah, I'm concerned," she said last week at Richmond International Raceway, where she competed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race. "The radiation seems like it's okay. I'm concerned about the food, to be honest. They say don't eat beef, which probably means don't eat vegetables and fruit. There's earthquakes every week, and it seems like every week, there's a pretty big one. I think there's a general concern for the safety of being over there. I'm told IndyCar has an emergency plan if something happens and we all need to get out, which is terrible to think about."

Two Japanese drivers are scheduled to compete in this race -- Takuma Sato and Hideki Mutoh, who is making his first IndyCar start of the season, driving an entry for AFS/Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

Sato, who drives for KV Racing Technology, became the first Japanese competitor to win a pole in the series earlier this year at Iowa.

"I think racing in Japan is not only big for me, but for the whole series," he said. "You have Japanese fans as well as [Japanese owned] Honda and Firestone. It is absolutely necessary to go race there, especially after what happened on March 11 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Japan needs energy, and the IZOD IndyCar Series brings that energetic excitement that Japan needs."

Motegi is the tenth and final road/street course race of the season. The last two events will be held on 1.5-mile ovals -- Kentucky (October 2) and Las Vegas (October 16).

After back-to-back road/street wins at Sonoma, CA and Baltimore, Will Power trails leader Dario Franchitti by just five points. Power last held the points lead in June at Texas. Can he reclaim it in Japan?

"Anything can happen, but all we can do is control what we can control and being mistake free, be quick in every session that we need to be quick in, like qualifying and execute on race day," he said. "That's what we've done for the last two races."

Twenty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Indy Japan.