MADISON, Ill. – Faced with five restarts in the final 40 laps, Kyle Busch held off Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and all other challengers to win the Enjoy Illinois 300 in the Cup Series’ second annual trip to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway on Sunday (June 4).
Busch led the most laps in this race a year ago, but he lost to Joey Logano on the final restart. That was not the case this year, as he scored his 63rd NASCAR Cup Series win, his third of the 2023 season and his first at Gateway.
But What Really Happened?
The race turned into a marathon after just five laps.
A Tyler Reddick spin on lap 2 brought out the caution for the first time, and after five laps, the cars were brought down pit road for a lightning hold.
The race resumed after more than an hour on pit road, and the first stage was all Busch. Second-place starter Ryan Blaney proved to be the biggest challenger to the No. 8 car in the first half, and he took the lead on lap 60 after a fierce side-by-side battle.
The caution was out once again on lap 92 after Carson Hocevar lost a brake rotor and crashed out of his Cup debut. And then, during the caution, the power went out.
FS1’s broadcast immediately crashed, and all the scoring monitors inside the Gateway media center went dark. The teams lost advanced timing and scoring data for the remainder of the race. For about five minutes, no one had a clue about what was happening.
The race then resumed, and Blaney scored the stage two win. Of the first 140 laps, all of them were led by Blaney (80) and Busch (60).
The final stage began with William Byron out front after a fast pit stop, and after a 27-lap green-flag run, the remainder of the race turned into an endurance struggle.
Reddick was the second car to lose a brake rotor and crash on lap 176. He was followed by Noah Gragson on lap 199, and the race was put under a second red flag for cleanup. Bubba Wallace was then the fourth and final car to lose a brake rotor with five laps to go.
A few spins and crashes were mixed in between the failures, and Busch, who had retaken the lead on lap 184, held off the rest of the field for the win.
Who Stood Out?
Busch looks to have Gateway figured out. He led the most laps and finished second last year, and with a brand new team and manufacturer, he won his first pole since 2019 and won a race after leading the most laps for the first time since 2020.
Logano followed his inaugural win at Gateway with a third-place finish in race two after running in the top 10 all day. In a season where the No. 22 team has struggled to find speed, this result was a much-needed shot in the arm.
Blaney backed up his dominant Coca-Cola 600 win with another impressive performance this week. Although he faded to sixth at the end, he led 83 laps and had an average running position of third on the evening. And after a 22nd-place finish by Ross Chastain, Blaney will enter next weekend’s race at Sonoma as the points leader.
Making his Cup Series’ debut in Spire Motorsports’ No. 7, Hocevar started 26th and had worked his way up to 16th place by the time he hit the wall. His debut ended in last place, but he certainly turned some heads with his performance before that.
Who Fell Flat?
Larson fell flat — but only in the first stage.
Larson qualified 22nd, and he quickly had a handful as he sunk to as low as 32nd in the opening 45 laps. The team kept with it, however, and with the help of pit strategy, Larson found himself in the top 10 by the end of stage two and battling for the lead in the closing laps.
After giving a fight to Busch on several restarts, Larson crossed the line in fourth. It was not the greatest showing of speed for the No. 5 team, but it was a solid finish and a clean race after a month of bad finishes and wrecked race cars.
On the topic of Hendrick Motorsports, Corey LaJoie had the opportunity of a lifetime to compete in HMS’ No. 9 car. Unfortunately, he was a nonfactor.
LaJoie qualified 30th and moved to the rear after hitting the kill switch on the pace laps. There were no other issues for the rest of the race, but with track position paramount, the No. 9 car hovered in the mid-20s for much of the afternoon. LaJoie crossed the line in 21st, the highest he had been all day.
The No. 1 team started off the weekend by qualifying eighth, but Chastain was only in the top 15 for 60% of the race and had faded back to 22nd by the end. Another poor showing after a mid-pack finish at Charlote dropped Chastain from the lead to fifth in points.
Better than Last Time?
With how chaotic the race was between the lightning, attrition, brake failures and stoppages, it’s hard to give an accurate read on this race.
There was some action toward the front of the field, but like most flat tracks with the Next Gen car, it was a struggle to pass.
The cars can run side-by-side at Gateway, which was evident on restarts and by a four-lap battle in stage two where Busch and Blaney duked it out for the lead. But once the field got strung out single file, it was hard for a driver to catch and pass the car ahead.
But even with all the delays, the fans showed up big. The race sold out for a second year in a row, and the fans still packed the stands even after the delays.
The stop and go nature of the race was frustrating at times, but the multitude of restarts led to some fun battles on the track. If the Next Gen car or the track can be tweaked to where the cars can run on the top and bottom (instead of just the bottom), there is enough fan interest and support for NASCAR to make an annual stop in the St. Louis area for a long time.
Paint Scheme of the Race
There were plenty of contenders this week, but the winner was the paint scheme that had decades of history behind it.
First run with Logano in select 2016 races, the Mosaic Shell/Pennzoil paint scheme returned after 2023 Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden — in a Shell-sponsored car — scored the 100th win for Shell and Pennzoil across Team Penske’s major motorsports divisions.
The car has hundreds of photographs from said wins, and it’s a design one could analyze for hours. It’s always nice to see recollections of auto racing history, and the resulting black and yellow checkered pattern of the car is the cherry on top.
The Cup Series heads back to the West Coast with its annual trip to Sonoma and the Wine Country of Northern California.
Daniel Suarez enters the race as the defending winner, while Reddick won the most recent road course race at Circuit of the Americas in March. Chase Elliott — the active leader in road course wins — will also return from suspension.
The Toyota / Save Mart 350 will take place on Sunday, June 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET.
The race will be broadcast on FS1, and it’s the final Cup race of FOX’s 2023 schedule. NBC and USA Network will take over the remainder of the season, starting at Nashville Superspeedway on June 25.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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