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Smith, Sadler look to improve 1.5-mile weak spot

July 18, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

Drivers face similar issues in competition for points lead, Dash 4 Cash bonus

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JOLIET, Ill. -- The leaderboard from Friday's first practice at Chicagoland Speedway told the story that Regan Smith has tried to change throughout the 2014 season.

The JR Motorsports cars of Chase Elliott (No. 9) and Kasey Kahne (No. 5) finished the session third and seventh, respectively. Down in 15th was Smith in his No. 7 Chevrolet, his team lacking speed and balance -- or something -- at the 1.5-mile track.

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It's a small struggle that Smith, the NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader, knows he must improve if he's to win the 2014 championship, let alone contend for a win Saturday in the EnjoyIllinois.com 300, the series' 18th of 33 races.

After all, seven of the final 10 tracks on the schedule are 1.5-mile ovals (Atlanta technically measures at 1.54 miles), and the No. 7 team hasn't performed as well at those places this year as the other JRM cars. At five races on intermediate ovals this year, Elliott won two and Kevin Harvick won one in the No. 5 car.

Smith's best finish in those five races is seventh, but he's coming off a 28th-place showing at the last 1.5-mile track (Kentucky Speedway) the series visited.

"As a team, I think the 7 team can improve on intermediate tracks," Smith said. "As a company, I feel like the intermediate program has been spot-on this year. What we've had with the 7 car is speed at some of them, not enough speed at other ones. It's up to us to study what our teammates are doing to have a little more speed in different areas and to make sure that we understand that and continue to improve and continue to learn as we go on."

Especially at Chicagoland. In five Nationwide Series starts here, Smith doesn't have a top-10. It's cause for concern when you consider that Joe Gibbs Racing driver Elliott Sadler is eight points out of the lead, and is Smith's competition for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Sadler, too, was quick to admit his team's 1.5-mile program needs to get better, just like Smith's squad. What's different, though -- about as different as Smith's Northeastern intonation and Sadler's country twang -- is how the drivers have fared at this track.

"We won here two years ago," Sadler said Friday. "Three years ago we were leading and had a flat tire. We run very, very well at this track and always seem to be in contention to win this race. To come to one of our best tracks with everything going on, it makes for a pretty exciting weekend."

Exciting, yes. Prosperous? That remains to be seen. At the very least, the top two drivers in the points standings should give an indication if they've begun to solve what ails them when the checkered flag falls Saturday.

"Last week, we just didn't have the balance right for the car to be able to pass in traffic and make moves that we need," Smith said. "That's something we're going to work hard on this week -- if we do get in a situation where we don't have the track position we want, that we can dig ourselves out of it and race on the offensive instead of the defensive. Hopefully we can pad on that points lead a little bit and stretch it out some instead of having it close in."

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