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Podium Preview: Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway

Kurt Busch and his No. 45 Monster Energy Toyota team prepare for Sunday's battle at Gateway. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Kurt Busch and his No. 45 Monster Energy Toyota team prepare for Sunday’s battle at Gateway. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

It may be 25 years of waiting for fans of World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, but the moment will be realized with Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300.

Despite being a relatively flat 1.25-mile paved track, it’s a bit of a Darlington and Phoenix combined as a speed palace. The four corners are unlike each other and may be a harbinger for racing at Pocono with the gear shifting for the backstretch.

When considering early favorites, the Blue Oval crew of Chase Briscoe, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney stand out easily. However, the Chevy camp of Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick and Kyle Larson may have some say along with the Toyota trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell.

This weekend, Cody ShoppeJasmine SharpeKobe Lambeth, Luis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorNathan SolomonStephen Conley, Taylor Kitchen and yours truly prepare for Cup’s first race at Gateway, Erik Jones’ rising stock and a double duty effort AJ Allmendinger.

Podium Preview: Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway
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Question 1
Ryan Blaney's chasing down his first checkered flag of 2022. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Ryan Blaney’s chasing down his first checkered flag of 2022. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

It’s the first trip to Gateway for the NASCAR Cup Series. While it’s a new to the series track for most of the Cup field, how much of a wild card race will this be given there’s 12 races left in the regular season?

Tiongson : It’ll be a bit of a wild card to say the least for most of the field this weekend. Fortunately, drivers and teams had the benefit of a 50 minute practice session on Friday afternoon to give them a chance with refining their setups.

There could be some valuable takeaways from Gateway that helps with the race at Loudon, New Hampshire and even Phoenix Raceway, this year’s finale. Look for drivers who excel at flat tracks to thrive from the start. It’s a good chance to either add to the Playoff points totals or experiment with setups if you’re essentially locked into the Playoffs.

Ultimately, I think it’s a great race for the Midwest fans who’ve missed the action at Chicagoland. Hopefully, we’ll see some quality on track action and the gear shifting not impacting the passing into and out of corners.

Solomon :  Honestly, I’m not so sure. Gateway is a flat track and it has characteristics similar to Phoenix, New Hampshire and Martinsville. We haven’t been to New Hampshire yet, but the races at Phoenix and Martinsville weren’t the best. For whatever reason, the Next Gen car just hasn’t done well at some of these shorter, flatter tracks. I think the cars will be set up similarly to other short track races and we’ll see a similar product – not much passing. Fords seem to thrive in these types of races, so expect a strong afternoon for the blue ovals.

Lambeth : Bringing a new car to a new track certainly leaves the race wide open. It’s hard to determine which drivers will be the ones to beat, but I guess you could look at those who’ve had past experience at Gateway in the Xfinity and Truck Series. The front row starters, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric, raced here in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Meanwhile, defending Cup champion Kyle Larson hasn’t raced at Gateway. However, I don’t think experience here will matter as much as we think. 

According to some of the drivers, passing might be difficult so track positions becomes super important. That could mean chaotic restarts and trying to get as many spots as you can get before the field spreads out. Overall, for drivers who are 20th and back in the points, they’ll need to be more aggressive each week heading into the summer months as we slowly inch closer to the playoffs. If there’s a late race restart, some drivers may consider staying out and try to steal a win.

Kitchen : Any new track brings a feeling of uncertainty, but after seeing how practice went for the Cup Series, this race is bound to be wild. 

For me, the unpredictably begins when looking at the starting lineup.

As Kobe mentioned, the front row starters for Sunday’s race have previously competed at this track in the truck series. Also, noting that the younger drivers have more recent experience at this track, it seems they may have the advantage this weekend.

Finally, it’s important to talk about the top 10 starting lineup. Six out of the top 10 in the starting lineup are Fords. Plus, Team Penske seems to have a handle on Gateway as they also practiced within the top 10.

So, if I could predict anything this weekend, I might say that the winner will be the driver of a Ford and/or, he may be a youngster. 

Question 2
Erik Jones is trying to be as epic as Indiana Jones. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Erik Jones is trying to be as epic as Indiana Jones. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Erik Jones has really turned up the wick for the No. 43 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevy team this year. Could “That Jones Boy” be the next in line to win a Cup race this year?

Shoppe : While I’m not going to say he’s the next winner, Erik Jones has certainly been carrying Petty GMS forward with his talent. I expect the famed 43 to contend for top tens week and week out. Maybe a place like Michigan or Daytona could be where Jones could break through. 

Sharpe : 2022 has shown great improvements within the RPM/ GMS garage overall since the two racing teams merged. As much as I would love to see the Michigan native be the next Cup driver to snag a win, there are just too many factors.

This year, we’ve seen several teams bloom and evolve overall. The first one that comes to mind is Trackhouse Racing, with Ross Chastain snagging two wins. Even 23XI Racing has shown overall improvement after acquiring Kurt Busch, who has also won a race this year. For the first time in years there is a possibility that there will be more than 16 winners before the playoff races kick off. 

Erik Jones winning would be such a great story after being released from JGR for Christopher Bell a few years back. Many have compared this to when Joey Logano was released by JGR and ended up with Team Penske. Joey bloomed, winning many races and even snagging a championship. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Erik, he has potential and knows what he needs to do to get the job done.

Sisoler : I think there’s a good chance that Erik Jones could be the next first time winner of the season. That 43 has been in contention in multiple times this season, a contrast to how that team has been in years prior. If things fall his way that 43 is definitely a contender to get a win.

Raynor : Erik Jones has definitely stepped up his racing this year. While the 43 team is showing signs of improvement, I do not think he will be the next one to win a race. The competition is so high and it’s really hard for new drivers to win races. I see that Jones boy having some good finishers and if he can keep his racecar clean and not be involved in any wrecks he could win a Daytona or Talladega race.

Question 3
Mic drop. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Mic drop. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

AJ Allmendinger will do a unique double duty for this weekend at Portland and Gateway. What can expect from “The Dinger” with his long distance racing plans?

Torres : It’s going to be a little throwback to the days when Cup guys would double dip at Sonoma and The Milwaukee Mile back in the day. 

For Allmendinger, it’s going to be instrumental not to have a bad outing in the Pacific Northwest. Not because he’s a former Champ Car winner and the very few who have experience at Portland, but for the championship because he’s got Ty Gibbs to worry about.

Gibbs is no slouch on those tracks and if Allmendinger is going to pose a true threat in this year’s title chase, it starts this weekend.

Once he goes to Gateway, he’ll have no track time as Ben Rhodes will be doing all the laps. If Rhodes can provide vital details to Allmendinger, that’ll go a long way on how he’ll fare in the Cup race. It’s a total wild card race in Madison. A top-20 result is where I expect “The Dinger” to end up in spite of going there cold turkey.

Conley : This will be interesting to follow for sure. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a driver computer in two series at two differ tracks on the same weekend. For AJ, he’s got a little experience at Portland, with a CART win in 06, but zero experience at Gateway.

In fact, one of the only Cup Series regulars to race at Gateway is Todd Gilliland who ran last year in the Trucks. I would expect a decent run for AJ in Portland as that track drives a lot like Mid-Ohio where he’s seen a lot of success. As for Gateway, we may want to temper expectations and just see that he brings the car home in one piece.

That’s three laps around World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway! Let’s rewind to last Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 with our race and points reports!
A pair of panelists earned a top five with Christopher Bell.

A pair of panelists earned a top five with Christopher Bell.

In this case, a familiar name is atop the points lead again.

In this case, a familiar name is atop the points lead again.

Next, let’s consider the starting grid for Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway!
Consider our starting grid for Sunday's race!

Consider our starting grid for Sunday’s race!

Lastly, here’s our picks for Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway!
We're going in many different directions.

We’re going in many different directions.

Conley : My pick is one of a select few that’s had success in the past at Gateway. Brad Keselowski was the last winner in the Xfinity Series in 2010. This would be a great place to turn his season around.

Tiongson : Ryan Blaney‘s due for a victory at last in the regular season. As this is the inaugural Cup race at WWTR and Ford cars seem fast, let’s go with the Jedi Knight.

Shoppe : Christopher Bell has quietly been strong lately and as great as he is at New Hampshire, CBell is going to win the Cup Series’ first race in Gateway!

Kitchen : Chase Briscoe seems to have this track figured out. I believe he will be running a a set up that is similar to what he ran at Phoenix, which is where he got his first Cup Series victory at. Therefore, I would imagine he will be successful this weekend at Gateway.

Sisoler : Figure I gotta be right one of these times. Tyler Reddick looked really good in practice and in qualifying for Gateway, and I mean, it is the first Cup race at the track. I’m gonna say it’s gonna be a first time winner at a first time Cup track. Sunday is gonna be Tyler’s time in his 89th Cup start.

Raynor : Reddick has been so close to winning and has raced at this track before.

Lambeth : For the second time at Gateway, the wheel for Ross Chastain will be still and perfect as he takes Trackhouse Racing to its third Cup victory of the season!

Solomon : It might just be a coincidence, but Joey Logano is really good at new tracks. He won the first ever Bristol Dirt race and the first ever LA Clash event. Obviously, this is the first time the Cup Series travels to Gateway.

Ford dominated practice and qualifying and they’ve overall been strong in other races at shorter, flatter tracks. Expect Logano to head to victory lane on Sunday.

Sharpe : Pure ambition and the desire to succeed has gotten Daniel Suárez this far. Every week, he’s been out front at one point in the race and I believe his effort will finally pay off.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week! While we progress toward a new kind of normal, please do your part to curb the impacts of the pandemic by washing your hands and getting your COVID-19 vaccine or booster.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $30 or more, use coupon code TPF2022 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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