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Podium Preview: Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway

Ryan Blaney would love to go back-to-back with victories, starting from the second position in Sunday's Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway. (Photo: Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

Ryan Blaney would love to go back-to-back with victories, starting from the second position in Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway. (Photo: Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

MADISON, Ill. – For the second consecutive year, the NASCAR Cup Series takes to the 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Illinois, about nine miles to the East of St. Louis. Although the Gateway Arch may be a shouting distance away from Round 15 of the 2023 season, the noise will be from 36 Gen-7 stock cars taking on a 240-lap race.

On the surface, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, or WWTR, or simply, Gateway, looks like a relatively flat track. With 11 degrees of banking in Turns 1 and 2 and nine degrees in Turns 3 and 4, it is comparable to Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire.

Much like yesteryear in the Cup Series, this track circuit suits the flat track specialists. Well, it seems that way except there is another factor to consider on race day with the hotter, humid conditions.

For drivers, it will be slick and tricky especially in the corners when attempting to pass fellow competitors. As for the crew chiefs, it may take some sales pitches to convince their leadfooter that all is OK with their car despite making setup compromises to find near neutral handling conditions.

Last year, Austin Cindric and Kurt Busch showcased their prowess before Joey Logano scooted away with an Overtime victory over Kyle Busch. Heading into Sunday’s race, look for Logano and Busch, the latter being the pole sitter, to be among the best of the bunch while Ryan Blaney, last Monday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 winner, William Byron and Tyler Reddick hope to pump up the volume on the asphalt arena.

Once the NASCAR official unfurls the green flag on race day, it is anyone’s guess as to who will prevail in this year’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. For the time being, come along for the ride this and each race weekend with Podium Preview.

This weekend, Cody Shoppe,  Kobe LambethLuis TorresMatt Sisoler, Teresa Bennink and yours truly consider the one race suspension for Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman’s decision to scale back on his dirt track efforts.

Podium Perspectives
Question 1
Corey LaJoie drives the No. 9 NAPA Nightvision Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 entry after Chase Elliott's suspension. (Photo: Travis Haston | The Podium Finish)

Corey LaJoie drives the No. 9 NAPA Nightvision Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 entry after Chase Elliott’s suspension. (Photo: Travis Haston | The Podium Finish)

With Chase Elliott suspended this weekend due to intentionally crashing Denny Hamlin in Monday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, has NASCAR sent a message to drivers and teams with heated moments?

Torres : Only when the on-track action is happening and I think that’s extremely important not to gloss over. Keep in mind, we’ve seen brawls and confrontations without punishment like we saw in the 2000s, which is good because let the driver settle it on the spot because they’re not strapped in their cars.

NASCAR’s decision by benching Elliott told me they’re gonna be consistent on punishing folks who hook a driver into the wall. It does raise safety concerns and if they didn’t punish Elliott like they did with Bubba Wallace at Las Vegas last fall, then it’ll make the sport amateur hour.

If anything, it’s NASCAR’s court and the drivers must realize, no matter who you are, nobody’s safe when such incidents put a driver in danger due to a car that’s had a bad reputation in safety thus far. 

It’s one thing dumping someone on purpose where it’s a bump that leads to a spin, but it’s a whole different can of worms when it sends someone into the wall. At times, head-on which made the Elliott-Hamlin fiasco agonizing and valid of a week off for the sport’s most popular driver.

Again, on-track is the problem which NASCAR certainly have done well on being consistent. Out of their cars, fair game. Let them settle it themselves.

Shoppe : I think a message has certainly been sent. A refreshing point of consistency by NASCAR officiating as Chase Elliott received the same penalty as Bubba Wallace for basically the same action. 

A clear message is sent by NASCAR that it does not matter who you are, if you right rear-hook a driver and evidence shows it was intentional, you will sit out a race. Regardless of how you feel about the harshness of this penalty, you have to be happy with the consistency by NASCAR. 

Tiongson : I would not say that NASCAR sent a message. It reiterated its message back in October after Bubba Wallace’s intentional crashing of Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Right hooks, or any intentional wrecks, of any kind, are not permissible nor tolerable.

Now, NASCAR faces a unique situation in which they must make judgment calls that distinguish hard racing with deliberate dumping of another competitor. Like Jasmine Sharpe mentioned on Ep. 72 of The Podium Finish Live!, Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain gave each other the business which seemed a bit ridiculous considering there are more than just the two of them on the track.

To wit, I think NASCAR needs to be a bit harsher if it deems an action as intentional crashing. No waiver should be granted and I think two to four weeks should send a louder message to a competitor for crossing the line. In a time when drivers are clamoring for more safety, yet crash each other out for what is deemed as an egregious act, NASCAR needs to further draw a line in the sand.

Question 2
Alex Bowman will decrease his dirt track efforts to concentrate more with his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro efforts. (Photo: Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

Alex Bowman will decrease his dirt track efforts to concentrate more with his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro efforts. (Photo: Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

Alex Bowman intends to scale back his dirt racing efforts to focus more on his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet efforts in the NASCAR Cup Series. How impactful is Bowman’s decision in terms of drivers who partake in extracurricular activities?

Sisoler : I really am not so sure how much it is, or rather, should be, affecting other drivers who do stuff away from their primary race cars.

The injuries that Chase Elliott and Bowman sustained in their extracurriculars could’ve just as easily happened in  freak accidents around their houses in the case of both drivers. 

Everyone is entitled to do what they want outside of their primary race cars in their free time, and if they want to do IndyCar or sprint cars or IMSA-type racing, or go snowboarding or play in a sports league away from the track, then they know the risks associated with doing those things and how said risks could negatively affect their careers.

Lambeth :  Just like any individual evaluating their priorities in life, Alex Bowman is making a personal decision by taking a step back from dirt racing and doing what’s best for him at this time. It probably wasn’t an easy choice since we know how passionate Bowman is about this discipline.

After the wreck that cost him several weeks of NASCAR Cup Series competition, Bowman is making his No. 48 Chevrolet the main focus moving forward. On any given Sunday, a driver could get injured while working on the “day job” in a Cup race. However, less sprint car races may result in fewer chances of suffering a potential season-altering injury. 

In all honesty, I don’t think Bowman’s decision will have any impact on his fellow competitors and the choices they make. Each driver is entitled to weigh the risks of extracurricular activities on their own. If they want to participate in something super risky and their contract doesn’t prevent it, people should be allowed to live freely without restrictions.

We can’t lock up the drivers and force them to live in a protective bubble. Everything in life is a risk and it’s up to all of us to decide if it’s worth the risk or not. Bowman made his call. We’ll see if others follow.

Bennink :  If this is truly a personal decision, and not influenced by Hendrick, I do not think it will affect other drivers.  

I am a strong believer of the idea that any seat time is well spent and of following your passions.  I think other drivers feel the same way, and I personally believe when you stifle a passion it follows through to the remainder of your life. Therefore, less seat time and less pursuit of activities that make you happy equals a less happy and less productive driver at his day job.

Bowman likely reevaluated his dream of pursuing NASCAR championships and found that dirt racing at this time was a detriment to that.  

With two laps around Gateway, we might have lapped the Griswold family on their way to Wally World! Now, let us take a moment to recall last Monday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Race 14 of 36 of the 2023 season, with our race and points reports!
Torres and Shoppe nearly won the 600 with William Byron.

Torres and Shoppe nearly won the 600 with William Byron.

In the meantime, Sisoler closes in on Lambeth by a bit!

In the meantime, Sisoler closes in on Lambeth by a bit!

Next, let us take a glimpse at the top 10 starters for Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway!
Row 1 – Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney

(Photo: Travis Haston and Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

Row 2 – Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick

(Photo: Travis Haston and Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

Row 3 – Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano

(Photo: Travis Haston | The Podium Finish)

Row 4 – William Byron and Ross Chastain

(Photo: Bobby Krug and Travis Haston | The Podium Finish)

Row 5 – Tyler Reddick and Austin Cindric

(Photo: Bobby Krug and Travis Haston | The Podium Finish)

Last but not least, here are our picks for Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway.
One of these five may wind up in Gateway's Victory Lane. (Photo: Travis Haston and Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

One of these five may wind up in Gateway’s Victory Lane. (Photo: Travis Haston and Bobby Krug | The Podium Finish)

Lambeth : Entering Gateway on a hot streak and seeking his fourth consecutive top-five finish, I think Bubba Wallace will finally get a big breakthrough performance for 23XI Racing and take home the checkered flag in the Midwest!

Shoppe : C Bell has been one of the best at flat tracks of late. I have a feeling Christopher Bell will pick up his second win of the year in Gateway!

Tiongson : Last year, Joey Logano kept himself in the hunt and made the decisive pass for the win, a pivotal victory in his championship quest. I look for more of the same from Logano as he starts sixth and has a solid, sporty No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford Mustang.

Torres : Regardless of the switch in teams, Kyle Busch will be a threat this weekend at Gateway. He was one of the more consistent guys in last year’s running and needs a clean race.

Sure, he ended up sixth after his best Alana Kane impression aka driving backwards in the 600 unraveled. But he has yet to have a true race where he controls the narrative. A dominant run is what’s overdue for Busch and I can see that changing in this race. By doing so, he’ll get his third win of 2023.

Sisoler :  Kyle Busch nearly won this race at Gateway last season, and starting from the pole, I think Rowdy is gonna capture the checkered flag at Gateway that he just missed out on in 2022.

Bennink : One word – momentum. Ryan Blaney also has a big monkey off his back now and can maybe take a few more risks with strategy now that he is in the Playoffs. A fourth place finish at WWTR last year is also a factor in my choice.

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 as we celebrate our 15th anniversary of operations!

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.

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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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