There’s a number of things “wrong” with the Chicagoland Speedway. It’s about as cookie-cutter as cookie-cutters come. Despite having the name of the Windy City in its title, the venue is about as close to Chicago as the ill-fated Nashville Superspeedway was to the Music City. It’s hold the (in)distinction of kicking off the abomination known as the Chase on the Cup side.
And on the Nationwide side, though it’s hard to complain about a standalone weekend that sees the AAA ranks get their shot at a Sunday race date where they’re center stage, Chicagoland Speedway’s the wrong venue for such a rare opportunity race.
*It’s an Intermediate Oval*
It does need to be said that the Nationwide Series race cars do race better on the intermediate circuits than the Cup kits…err, cars. But saying a race is better than a Cup race on a cookie-cutter isn’t saying much of anything. After all, one doesn’t need to look too far back to remember that the 300-miler at Kentucky last month was nothing to write home about. Between the aerodynamic challenges and the fact that NNS cars are running on tires nearly, if not identical, to the rocks the Cup Series runs on, there’s not a whole lot drivers or teams can do to improve the racing on track.
Why does this matter? The Nationwide Series event is the marquee for NASCAR this weekend. The Cup guys are gone (mostly anyway), it’s the Sunday afternoon show, and with Austin Dillon being on a tear and Sam Hornish Jr. vying for a Cup ride, the stakes are high heading into the weekend. With such a script, it would be far more fitting to put the pride of the Nationwide Series…and the story of its season…on the type of track that would allow for those same drivers and teams to put on a show worth watching.
There’s plenty of short tracks out there capable of hosting a major NASCAR race. There’s road courses, there’s dirt tracks…all of which would put more of the race in the hands of the drivers.
*It’s Not Unique*
What’s more, it’s a venue that’s not unique to the series, even on a weekend that’s all its own. There’s more than a half dozen operating short tracks out there on the original 1982 Nationwide Series schedule that would be fully capable of hosting a Nationwide race with a few more grandstands and some SAFER barriers. And even without short tracks such as Hickory or Caraway, there’s still Rockingham and IRP that are fully prepared for a major NASCAR event.
Face it, even with some weathering asphalt and a decade-long history of racing, Chicagoland Speedway is hardly a signature event for stock car racing. Furthermore, being a race weekend that, even though a headliner for the Nationwide guys is just an undercard on the Chicagoland season schedule, it’s very difficult to imagine this standalone race ever becoming an established trophy worth the same type of special pursuit that a Daytona, a Charlotte or, in the case of the Nationwide Series, Nashville was.
The Nationwide Series has learned an extremely valuable lesson the past 18 months…the value of a unique identity. Ever since making Cup regulars ineligible to score points and run for the Nationwide Series championship, involvement of those drivers in the AAA ranks of NASCAR has dropped significantly, to a point that Nationwide Series regulars have already won more races the first half of the 2012 season than they did all of 2011 combined. There’s also the element of the championship race being competitive again after a five year stretch of the series title being snatched by a big-time Cup star…as if last year’s Stenhouse vs. Sadler battle wasn’t enough, now it’s grown to a four-car fight this summer.
All of that simply through a standings change to keep the series regulars at the top, where they belong. The Nationwide Series committed to its own product, and turned into a better product as a result. There’s no reason to think doing the same with its race tracks won’t yield the same type of improvements.
*It’s a Precursor to a Chase Race*
Besides the obvious fact that in concentrating the Nationwide Series schedule more and more at Cup venues, companion weekend or not, ISC gets more race dates, there’s another reason that hosting a Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland makes sense for NASCAR…
It provides a 300-mile test date for September’s Cup race…to make sure that Chicagoland and Chase race one never fall victim to an aero package the equivalent of the Loudon restrictor plate race of 2000…or the Tiregate fiasco of Indianapolis 2008.
Sure, that practically makes sense for the sanctioning body, using their minor leagues to test for the big fish the same way Cup drivers did in the days prior to the Nationwide Series COT. But in trying something out, in testing, the motivation isn’t synonymous with what it should be…putting the most competitive race package possible on the cars. The Nationwide cars, close as they are, to the Cup cars, are not identical. What the Cup cars need are not what the Nationwide cars need to put on the best possible show and allow the drivers to do their thing.
But I’d be more than willing to wager that if given the choice between asking Goodyear to bring what they plan to bring for September’s Cup race and bringing a Nationwide-configured tire, the fall package is going to win out.