Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, July 1, 2018, 8:12 a.m.
The first aspect of Chicagoland Speedway that impressed me was how large Chicagoland is. As my father might have said, it’s a pretty fair jump from the Windy City.
The first time I sat in the press box, I trained my binoculars on the hazy distance, looking for the skyscrapers of Chicago. I thought I found one and tried to fine-tune the focus with the image quivering in the heat waves.
Turns out, it was a silo.
Chicagoland and Kansas speedways opened in tandem. The Jewel of Joliet – my visits would suggest there’s little competition in figurative jewelry – opened at the Cup level on July 15, 2001, with a victory by Kevin Harvick. The first major race at the Bonanza of Kansas – it’s the best I could do on short notice – fell to Jeff Gordon’s assault on Sept. 30 of that same year.
The two aren’t complete clones – Chicagoland has a back straight with gentle curves in both ends – but they appear to have been designed with considerable collaboration. Commerce bustles around the Kansas track, but Chicagoland remains relatively remote in Joliet, known to many as home of the prison where Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers, received their paroles at the beginning of a movie.
Here we are in 2018, where Harvick, who won the first two Chicagoland affairs, is dueling for a Monster Energy Cup championship with Martin Truex Jr., who captured the past two.
The third member of the contemporary Great Triumvirate, Kyle Busch, has won once at both tracks in between.
I doubt the members of the original Great Triumvirate – John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster – imagined race-car drivers, or even drivers, as they fretted about the possibility of sending the federal cavalry to put down Indian uprisings in both locations.
Once again, it’s the best I could do on short notice.
Where I live, I have learned the peril of dismissing all short towns as just alike, and I also know that tracks aren’t made of gigantic cookie cutters. The one used for Chicagoland had a couple dents in it.
NASCAR seasons aren’t just alike, either. This year six drivers have won all the races, and four – the modern triumvirate plus Clint Bowyer – have staked their claims to all but two. The most recent victory by an outlier was in April.
One year ago, at this point, 11 different drivers had won, and the biggest winner was this guy named Jimmie Johnson, who had nailed down three. Truex had two. Harvick had one. Kyle Busch had zero, but Kurt Busch had one.
Another familiar pattern was a race that was relatively undistinguished until the final laps, at which point most of hell broke loose. This year a form of hell breaks loose for most of the day, at which point someone runs away with the fervor of Jake and Elwood from the Joliet penitentiary.
After this point in 2017, the action stabilized. Here’s hoping the reverse happens this year, too.
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