Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR NOTES: Joe Gibbs Racing’s Teammate Rivalry May Heat Up in Chicago

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Recent history at Chicagoland Speedway has a distinctive similarity to the current competitive situation in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship standings.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are the most recent Chicago winners – Truex earning back-to-back trophies in 2016-17 and Busch winning last year.

The two drivers come to the Camping World 400 Sunday as the Monster Energy Series’ winningest drivers this season. Truex picked up his fourth victory Sunday in Sonoma to tie Busch in the win count.

Chicagoland Speedway, however, has long been one of Busch’s best tracks – and he’s performed best in the last few years. In addition to his 2018 win at the track, he won from the pole position in 2008 – the only driver in history to win from pole. He has earned an all-time high four pole positions in all.

In just the last six years Busch has won three poles and one race. His 399 laps led during that time frame is 69.9 percent of his career total laps led (573) at Chicago. He has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races. And Busch has three Xfinity Series and five Gander Outdoor Truck Series wins at Chicago, too.

Last year’s Monster Energy Series victory is among the most memorable in Busch’s career as he prevailed in a spirited last lap exchange with Kyle Larson. Larson used a “slide job” maneuver to get by Busch out of Turn 2 and then Busch caught back up to Larson and the two made contact as Busch got around Larson between Turns 3 and 4 en route to the checkered flag. The two shook hands after one of the more exciting finishes of the 2018 season.

That success all lines up well with his current season’s work. He has a series-best 15 top-10 finishes in 16 races, including top-five finishes in his last four races. He finished runner-up to Truex Sunday at Sonoma. He’s led laps in 12 races – double digit laps in nine of those. And he trails reigning series champion Joey Logano by a single point in the championship standings.

“Back when we first started racing there in the summer, it was a night race, so with a hot track now and the surface worn out more now, it certainly tends to play to my strengths and as we saw last year, we can put on a really good race with the heat, combined with the worn-out surface,’’ Busch said.

Its Truex time

Martin Truex Jr. has shown no signs of any transitional snafus moving from the Furniture Row Racing team, where he won the 2017 series championship, to the Joe Gibbs Racing operation this year where he just earned his fourth trophy in the season’s opening 16 races.

And he and his No. 19 JGR Toyota team arrive at Chicagoland Speedway with every reason to feel optimistic about carrying on the good vibes. Truex won back-to-back races in 2016-17 on the Chicago mile-and-a-half oval and finished fourth there last summer.

Truex has led laps in only three of the last seven races at the Chicago track – a career best 77 laps in his 2017 victory. Statistically Truex certainly seems to be getting better with age – scoring three of his five career top-five finishes in the last three races. He has 13 starts total.

Since his first win of 2019 – at Richmond on April 13 –  Truex has only gone more than two weeks without a trip to Victory Lane only one time. There were three weeks between his win at Charlotte and last week on the Sonoma, Calif. road course.

He’s led 493 laps in his four wins – that’s 95.1 percent of all his laps led (518) this season.

Interestingly though, in his 23 career victories, Truex has never won back-to-back races on the schedule.

“I think JGR, all of our cars are running good at places throughout the season but for us personally on the 19, the last couple of mile-and-a-halves we’ve really turned a corner,’’ Truex said. “Michigan was a great run for us, Charlotte obviously, winning there was big.

“We started out the year kind of searching a bit on the mile-and-a-halves and the bigger tracks with the 550-horsepower package. For us, I definitely feel like we’ve learned a lot the past month and half and really turned a corner there. That has given us a lot of confidence and we feel like Chicago will be a good race for us.’’

Harvick still waiting on a win

Kevin Harvick won the very first two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races ever held at Chicagoland Speedway and visiting Victory Lane again – for the first time in 17 years since – would be a timely dose of can-do for a team that had already hoisted five trophies by this time last season.

Harvick boasts the most top-five (10) and top-10 (11) finishes in the field this weekend and his 101.1 driving rating is third best among drivers with more than five starts in Chicago.

He’s finished top-five in four of the last six races and third both in 2017 and 2018. He’s led an impressive 471 laps at the track and led laps in four of the past five races.  He’s started in the top-five in three of the last four races, including from the pole position in 2015. And . …. Harvick has never suffered a DNF at Chicago.

This time last year Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team had won seven of the opening 16 races – nearly half. This year SHR is still contending for its first win. Although the team has certainly been close. Harvick has 11 top-10 and five top-five finishes – five times finishing a season best fourth place.

And that work  – even without a win – has been good enough to place him third in the driver points standings. He trails leader Joey Logano, a two-time winner in 2019 by 70 points. But he’s got a four-point advantage over three-race winner Brad Keselowski in fourth place and a 70-edge over four-race winner Truex, who is in fifth place.

Logano continues his reign

Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Joey Logano has won half as many races (two) as Kyle Busch and last week’s Sonoma champion Martin Truex Jr., but he has been good enough to maintain his position atop the points standings – by a single point over four-time winner Busch.

Logano’s 23rd-place finish at Sonoma matched his worst finish of the season – at Atlanta in February – and snapped a three-race top-10 run. But he still maintains a one-point edge over four-race winner Kyle Busch atop the points standings.

Logano has only led laps in one of the last five races (163 of 203 laps in his Michigan win two weeks ago). The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has never won at Chicago before, but earned the pole position for the 2013 race and has top-10 finishes in six of the last seven races – including the last five consecutively. His best showing at Chicago is runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. in 2016.

Keselowski is a good bet at Chicago

Brad Keselowski is one of only four multi-time winners (also Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick) at this week’s Chicagoland Speedway venue – taking the trophies in 2012 and 2014.

He shows up with eight consecutive top-10 finishes there and a pair of front row starts (outside pole in 2013 and 2016). His 9.2 average finish is best among active drivers with more than five starts. And he’s led laps in seven of his 10 starts.

It’s been five races since Keselowski earned his third win of 2019 – at Kansas. Two of this three victories (at Atlanta and Kansas) and one of his two runner-up finishes (at Las Vegas) have come on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Chicagoland.

Newman is a new man

Ryan Newman’s move to Roush-Fenway Racing this season has been a revitalization of his competitive spirit and talent can-do. He’s been making an especially impactful run at the Playoff 16 in recent weeks and shown no signs of letting up.

Newman’s sixth place showing at Sonoma, Calif. on Sunday was his second straight top-10 finish and fifth of the season. And it was good enough to move him into the 16th place – final cutoff position – in the series driver standings. He trails 15th place Kyle Larson by nine points and holds a one-point edge on 17th place Jimmie Johnson. It’s Newman’s first time back inside the top 16 since the first week of May.

The native Midwesterner, Newman, shows up in Chicago fresh off back-to-back top-10 finishes – eighth at Michigan and sixth place at Sonoma – his best showing at the California road course venue since a seventh place in 2008.

The driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford is one of only six active drivers with a previous win at this week’s Chicagoland Speedway venue. He won the pole position in his very first start (2002) and he won the race in his second start (2003). And he’s one of only two drivers (also Kyle Busch won race from pole in 2008) to win a pole position and also a race at the track.

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