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July 3, 2024

Chicago Turning Point: This season’s ever-increasing intensity, and can anybody beat SVG in the Windy City?


cars race at chicago
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Here’s what’s happening in the world of NASCAR with Nashville in the rearview and the Chicago Street Race (Sun., 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC) right around the corner.

THE LINEUP ️

1️⃣ The intensity only ramps up from here

2️⃣ Can anybody beat SVG?

3️⃣ How Joey Logano’s fuel-saving efforts won Nashville

4️⃣ How do you get to the playoffs? Stage points, stage points, stage points

5️⃣ Catch the pack – news and notes from around the garage

joey logano celebrates at nashville
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1. The intensity only ramps up from here

It’s hard to believe a two-time champ’s win could shake up the playoff situation so much, but plenty of drivers are feeling the heat after Nashville.

Take a hard look at the photo above of Joey Logano after climbing out of his No. 22 Team Penske Ford, moments removed from outlasting the field through a record five NASCAR Overtimes for his first victory of 2024.

That’s a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and 33-time Cup race winner who’s about as fired up to claim a checkered flag as anybody we’ve seen this year in any series.

Winning just meant that much right now.

There was legitimate, somewhat unspoken concern among the No. 22 group, one of the most heralded in the sport, that a playoff miss was on the table. Instead, “Sliced Bread” rose to the occasion and delivered for his team, which is now well positioned as we enter July.

Logano’s Nashville triumph ensured that Team Penske — an organization that hadn’t won in 2024, period, until just five races ago — became the first team to land all of its full-time drivers in the playoffs with a win. While the other powerhouse teams in Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing currently slot all four of their drivers in, Roger Penske’s bunch is the only one sleeping tight at the moment. The pressure and intensity are only going to increase every week from now until Darlington, and anybody without a win isn’t sitting comfortably at the moment, including JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Ty Gibbs and Hendrick’s Alex Bowman, who all looked like playoff locks a few weeks ago.

With Logano leaping off the elimination line all the way to ninth in the playoff standings, that moves Bowman down to last in the provisional playoff grid despite what, in some facets, is shaping up to be a career-year numbers-wise as he’s one of just five drivers with double-digit top 10s. He’s relatively safe for now at 51 points above the bubble, but if any of the drivers below him find their way into Victory Lane over the next seven races, we could be looking at the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet — a car that once won five straight titles — missing the playoffs for a second year in a row. (And if Bowman does make it, it’s worth noting he’s the only driver currently in the provisional field without any playoff points.)

Bowman isn’t the only one who would be in serious trouble, however. Spots 13th to 16th in the standings are separated by just 19 points, so a new winner outside the top 16 would send shockwaves throughout.

With the unpredictable nature of almost every track remaining before the field of 16 locks in, it feels inevitable that there will be.

shane van gisbergen celebrates at chicago
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2. Can anybody beat SVG?
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Shane van Gisbergen put on a clinic — in his NASCAR debut — to win the inaugural Chicago Street Race. Has the field caught up to him, though?

It’s always funny when listening to sports prognosticators talk about whether an athlete “can” accomplish a goal or beat a particular opponent, etc., when more often than not the correct word should be “will.” Of course it can happen. It’s sports, just about anything can happen — the question is really “will this happen” or “won’t it happen?”

For the above question, I very specifically mean “can.” Literally — can anybody beat Shane van Gisbergen this weekend? Like, is it actually possible?

It’s been a year, and plenty more incredible things have happened since, but let’s please remember just how ridiculously impressive SVG’s outmaneuvering of the field in the inaugural Chicago Street Race was. It was his first taste of action in any NASCAR series, with extremely limited seat time before the green flag flew, with a team/project in its infancy driving for a group of essentially strangers to the New Zealand native and he still rode to Victory Lane after biblical storms blew through the Windy City.

Given that set of circumstances still produced a win, it feels fair to question if SVG is just going to be untouchable on this track — the only one of its kind on the circuit — for the foreseeable future.

Even the drivers, themselves, aren’t so sure if he’s beatable.

“I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting to see,” defending Cup champion Ryan Blaney said last month at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Obviously, he’s really talented. I’ve been enjoying watching his inaugural Xfinity season. He’s a good guy. I’ve gotten to talk to him a good bit, and he loves the sport and really enjoys it. I don’t know if he’ll have as much of an advantage this year because everyone was kind of in the same boat last year as far as first time there, but he raced on a lot of street courses, and the V8 (Supercars) stuff and the rain and all that craziness that went on. He probably had a little bit of a leg up on everybody and it showed, and he took advantage of it and won the race. Hopefully, we can all draw a little bit closer to him at that place to where he doesn’t embarrass us like he did last year. We’ll see, though.”

Van Gisbergen now has an additional four Cup starts — two of which were road courses — under his belt, along with two victories in the 17 Xfinity Series races he’s run this year as he seeks a title there. He’s now an official American resident as well, and he’s no doubt more comfortable on the general NASCAR side of things than he was a year ago. And a comfortable driver is a fast driver, especially on a type of track that he knows especially well and certainly better than anybody else in the field.

The rain was a clear factor in last year’s race, with SVG looking like a duck amongst cats as he splished and splashed around the tight, 12-turn city streets with ease while the other 36 cars tip-toed cautiously.

Should Sunday’s race be run in the dry, however, it could tighten things up.

“I don’t think it will be as much of an advantage (if it doesn’t rain), but there’s no doubt that street courses seem to be his wheelhouse,” Logano said at NHMS. “There’s no doubt he’s good on road courses as well, like the typical road courses. He’s great at those as well, but it did seem like a street course he felt way more at home when we all felt like a fish out of water going around that race track. Then you added rain. It was perfect for him and he capitalized as he should. For 99% of the field that was the first time for any of us to do anything like that and we all have very limited experience of racing in the rain.

“We also had a lot to lose where he had nothing to lose. … Like, you look at those walls and it is like, whoa, there are a lot of points in those walls. For him, who cared? I think all those things weighed into it for sure. I think this year, now that we all have a general idea of what we’re going into, we can prepare for it. It’s hard to prepare for something when you’re blind and you don’t know what it’s going to be like. I’m sure he’s still going to have a lot more experience with this stuff than we do, but I think we’ll close the gap a lot.”

3. How Joey Logano’s fuel-saving efforts won Nashville

NBC’s Steve Letarte and MRN’s Todd Gordon break down how Joey Logano won at Nashville Superspeedway by saving fuel.

4. How do you get to the playoffs? Stage points, stage points, stage points

Obviously, the best path to the postseason is with a race victory — but a look at the elimination bubble shows the importance of maximizing stage points, too.

RankDriverTotal points+/- to elimination lineStage Points
12Martin Truex Jr.591+143141
13Ty Gibbs518+7093
14Ross Chastain514+6666
15Chris Buescher504+5662
16Alex Bowman499+5170
17Bubba Wallace448-5176
18Chase Briscoe421-7833
19Kyle Busch395-10459
20Josh Berry368-13146
21Todd Gilliland367-13235

5. Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

Paint Scheme Preview: Chicago

NASCAR betting: Opening odds for Chicago

Risk vs. reward runs high on Chicago Street Course, where hazards, SVG loom

Chicago Street Course comes to life ahead of race weekend

NASCAR official explains Kyle Busch’s restart placement in Nashville OT

Penalty report: Carson Hocevar, No. 77 team issued loss of 25 driver points

AM Racing taps Joey Logano as Xfinity fill-in for Hailie Deegan at Chicago

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