Deep dish: Recalling 19 seasons of NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway
Scuffles in the pits, furious last-lap battles, game-changing announcements and news conferences.
Chicagoland Speedway has delivered some memorable moments over the past two decades.
While it sometimes has been lumped in with the 1.5-mile sameness on the schedule, much has happened in the cornfields about an hour southwest of downtown Chicago.
Who knows what might have been in store for NASCAR’s premier series Sunday, which was the original date for the Cup Series’ annual visit to Joliet, Illinois, before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wiped it off the slate.
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It might be difficult to reflect with everything else happening in NASCAR and the world, though.
“I think everybody is just so head down just trying to get through everything that’s been thrown at us every day and every week,” Brad Keselowski, who won at Chicagoland in 2012 and ‘14, said this week. “It’s so hard to have any perspective right now. I think that whether it’s virus or protests and that’s happening globally, then we have our own little focus world of at the racetrack and trying to win and trying to overcome no practice.
“I’ve got to do a health screening every other day. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, I don’t have any help at the racetrack. It’s a complete mess and we’re all just trying to kind of live through the days. I think somebody brought up on Twitter about not going to Sonoma. That hadn’t even crossed my mind, not even in the faintest. People ask me what day it is, and I have no idea what day it is.
“So it’s really hard to have any context to a lot of what’s going on. I’m trying, we’re all trying, but when it comes to things like trying to put missing Chicago in perspective it’s like, ‘I’m just trying to make it to Talladega.’ ”
Before turning attention to 500 miles Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, it seems worthy for a speedy loop through the highlights of Chicagoland Speedway, which opened in 2001 but faces a cloudier future.
While Keselowski and others are hoping the 2021 schedule will include a stop in The Windy City, NASCAR already has announced one new track (Nashville Superspeedway) and seems to be considering other fresh markets and venues, too, as it explores midweek races, streamlined schedules and other efficiencies discovered since the schedule was restarted May 17.
“Whether it’s different tracks, different venues, different schedules, setups, rosters, I’m all ears,” Keselowski said. “I just want what’s best for this sport and without being able to see all the data to speak to 100 percent knowledge base, I would say that the knowledge base that I do have there are a lot of things I like and one of them is Chicago.”
While we await the decision on a 20th season of NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway, here are 19 of the more important, irreverent and intense moments in the track’s racing history from 2001-19 (which also includes IndyCar):
1. The “Slide Job”: The July 1, 2018 duel between Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson simply ranks as among the best full-contact fights for a victory in NASCAR history. That it was punctuated by the debut of a new NASCAR on NBC broadcaster’s exuberant call of the action only added to the lore. The race also was memorable with “The Big Three” of Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all involved in the highlights and showcasing their championship mettle.
2. Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne square off: A mentor-pupil relationship was tested when Tony Stewart wrecked Cup rookie Kasey Kahne out of the lead. Tommy Baldwin, Kahne’s crew chief, led his team to Stewart’s pit and a scuffle briefly ensued after which Ray Evernham vowed to “have 10 minutes alone with Tony Stewart and I’ll handle this by myself.” Oh by the way, Stewart won the July 11, 2004 race, his first victory of the season.
3. Jeff Gordon vs. Matt Kenseth: In a feud that had started four months earlier with a bump and a shove at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon spun Matt Kenseth out of the lead and led the final seven laps of a July 9, 2006 victory. “He should have expected some action,” Gordon said. “Because of what happened in Bristol, you better believe I was going to make his life difficult.” Said Kenseth: “That wasn’t an accident,” said Kenseth, a Cambridge, Wis., native racing at the track closest to his hometown. “He just ran over me.”
4. Runaway orange on the frontstretch: Tropicana sponsored the first four Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway but was most well-known for an Xfinity qualifying highlight on July 9, 2004. As driver Todd Szegedy began his lap, he nearly ran into a 20-foot-high inflatable orange with a red and white straw that broke loose from its moorings and caught a breeze on the frontstretch. “I used to like orange juice, now it almost killed me,” Szegedy said. “It would have been neat if it would have hooked onto my car.”
5. IndyCar by a nose: In the closest finish in the history of the NTT IndyCar Series, Sam Hornish Jr. nipped Al Unser Jr. by 0.0024 seconds Sept. 8, 2002 at Chicagoland Speedway. Tight finishes in Joliet, Illinois, were a hallmark for IndyCar, which raced there from 2001-10 and also recorded its second-closest finish (Helio Castroneves by 0.0033 over Scott Dixon on Sept. 7, 2008) and fourth-closest finish (Ryan Briscoe by 0.0077 over Dixon on Aug. 29, 2009) at the 1.5-mile oval.
6. A historic baker’s dozen: Chicago is known for a checkered history of political controversies and scandals, so it was only fitting that one of NASCAR’s worst happened here. NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the Sept. 13, 2013 addition of Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver to the playoff field after a review of the race manipulation in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The following day, France gathered crew chiefs, drivers and car owners to read them the riot act about future race tampering.
7. International appeal: The buzz began as soon as the Chicagoland garage opened Sunday morning, July 9, 2006. A Formula One winner was coming directly to NASCAR? And not the IndyCar Series where he’d made his fame? A few hours later, Juan Pablo Montoya officially was announced as Chip Ganassi Racing’s new driver for 2007. “It’s a historic announcement to have someone of his international success and caliber,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “It simply transcends every effort NASCAR has been involved in for 58 years to make it desirable, diverse and international. Anybody who follows motor sports naturally would know his name.” Montoya called it “my toughest challenge ever,” and he was right. Though the Colombian won twice, he never consistently contended over seven Cup seasons.
8. No puppet show allowed: In one of the more amusing chapters in Chicagoland history, several Cup teams were banned from having Muppets characters in their pits in a paint scheme sponsorship tied to the 25th anniversary of “The Muppet Show.” Track officials said it was because Chicagoland wasn’t part of the promotion. “Anybody want to let the Muppets out of jail?” Bill Elliott asked after qualifying third with a No. 9 Dodge that had the Swedish Chef on its hood.
9. Justin Labonte’s miracle Xfinity victory: In perhaps the biggest upset in track history, Justin Labonte started 34th, fell a lap down and won on a fuel mileage gambit when Mike Wallace ran out of gas on the last lap. Labonte, who hadn’t led a lap or finished in the top 10 of 30 previous Xfinity starts, celebrated in a low-key manner after the July 10, 2004 race. He held the checkered flag out his window on a victory lap saluting his part-time team, which had eight employees and was owned by his two-time Cup champion father. “This is bigger than any win I’ve ever had,” Terry Labonte said.
10. A memorable restart: The odds seemed stacked against Kyle Busch on a two-lap shootout that ended the first Cup night race at Chicagoland. Busch was running second to Jimmie Johnson, two championships into his run of five consecutive. But at the final green flag on July 12, 2008, Busch swung his No. 18 to the outside of Johnson’s No. 48 and made it stick for the seventh of a series-high eight victories in 2008. Busch who radioed his team in resignation while chasing Johnson earlier, told his crew, “I appreciate you guys sticking with me. I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, but you’ll have that in a punk.”
11. The pass of the season: With extraordinary finesse, Brad Keselowski split the middle between the top two cars of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson and led the final 17 laps to win the Sept. 14, 2014 playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. “I just saw a hole and I went for it,” the Team Penske driver said. “(Harvick) and (Larson) were racing really hard. It just opened a hole. I didn’t know if my car would stick, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it.”
12. Smoke rises: Four days after proclaiming he wasn’t a contender for the championship, Tony Stewart won Sept. 19, 2011 (held on a Monday afternoon) as Chicagoland opened the Cup playoffs for the first time. It was the first victory of the year for Stewart, who won five of the final 10 races for his third championship.
13. First-time winner: For the second consecutive year, Larson came up on the short end of a memorable outcome as Alex Bowman finally fulfilled the promise of being hired by Hendrick Motorsports. After losing the lead to Larson for two laps, Bowman regained it with five laps remaining in the June 30, 2019 race.
14. A fiery wreck: In the track’s scariest crash, Ryan Briscoe briefly went airborne and landed on the backstretch SAFER barrier in a fireball that split his car in half. Briscoe thankfully survived but broke his shoulders in the Sept. 11, 2005 wreck and spent a week in the hospital recovering. He returned to win at the track four years later.
15. Best in class: Though the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in 2009 was his first victory, the July 10, 2010 triumph at Chicagoland Speedway will be remembered as David Reutimann’s greatest victory. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver and crew chief Rodney Childers had the best car start to finish, beating Jeff Gordon straight up. “I felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over our head with that win at the 600,” Reutimann said. “Everybody just says, ‘Yeah, you guys won, but .. ‘Now I’m just like, ‘OK, here you go, just leave me alone. We won the race.”
16. Junior’s achievement: After the first half of a season that wrecked his confidence, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored an out-of-the-blue victory July 10, 2005 with Steve Hmiel, his third crew chief in six months. It would be Earnhardt’s lone Cup triumph that season. “It’s a long time coming,” he said. “It’s real emotional . . . more than I can handle right now. With all the darts thrown at these guys this year. It’s just awesome.”
17. Quiet breakthrough: The first Xfinity race at Chicagoland Speedway was also the first NASCAR victory for a legend. Jimmie Johnson was an unheralded driver for Herzog Motorsports when he led the final 43 laps to win July 14, 2001. Within three months, he was hired to drive the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports, and the rest is history.
18. Another first-timer: Casey Mears already had been a Cup driver for four seasons when he scored his only career Xfinity victory in a fuel-mileage play to lead the final 47 laps July 8, 2006 at Chicagoland Speedway. It came a month after Mears had been hired by Hendrick for the 2007 season, in which he’d get his final victory (the Coca-Cola 600).
19. Lights, camera, action: Chicagoland’s proximity to the country’s third-largest media market often has meant drawing a larger share of Hollywood stars plugging their work. During the July 2006 weekend, it was Will Ferrell and the cast of “Talladega Nights” promoting the NASCAR-themed movie released that summer. Ferrell got a prerace ride in a stock car driven by Wally Dallenbach Jr. “I almost threw up doing the donuts,” Ferrell said. “A mixture of G forces and burning rubber after eating eggs is not the best.”