World Wide Technology Raceway promises fireworks in an exciting second race in NASCAR

MADISON, ILLINOIS - JUNE 05: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Menards/Atlas Ford, and Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Ford, lead the field on a pace lap prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at WWT Raceway on June 05, 2022 in Madison, Illinois. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway makes a popular return to the NASCAR schedule for the second year in a row. The NASCAR Cup Series raced at Gateway, just outside St. Louis for the first time last year, with the track having been a longtime fixture of the Truck Series.

If last year’s race was anything to go off of, the track will put on a show in Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 presented by TicketSmarter at World Wide Technology Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The pace-lap pyrotechnics set the stage for a gripping race that culminated in Joey Logano’s win.

But one driver who contributed to more than his share of that action last year was Ross Chastain. After he moved Denny Hamlin up the track and into the wall, Hamlin held up Chastain and pushed him down into the grass at the bottom of the track. Chastain also managed to spin Chase Elliott later in the race, collecting a few other drivers.

Though he apologized, Chastain hasn’t stopped getting criticized for overly-aggressive driving, even coming to blows with Noah Gragson over it at Kansas. He didn’t bring up the criticism heading into the weekend, though, instead focusing on how much he likes the track that he earned a Truck Series win at several years ago.

“I enjoy going to the Midwest and its fun because it’s a fairly new market for the Cup Series. The fans are excited to have a race there,” Chastain said.

Chastain won’t be able to reignite both of last year’s controversies even if he wants to, though, since Elliott won’t be on the track.

NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott for one race after the sanctioning body ruled that he intentionally wrecked Denny Hamlin on the frontstretch after being pushed into the wall during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Instead, the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be piloted by Corey Lajoie at Gateway, who’s been angling for a Hendrick ride since he sent a hand-written letter to team owner Rick Hendrick. The Spire Motorsports driver is currently 19th in the standings

“The last 24 hours have been surreal,” Lajoie said after the announcement. “Despite the circumstances, I’m very appreciative of Mr. Hendrick for the opportunity to fill in for a championship team and driver. I also can’t thank my Spire Motorsports family for working with Hendrick Motorsports to make it come to fruition.”

He also spoke about his impressions of the elite team.

“The level of preparation and expectations to succeed are everything I expected them to be,” he said. I was able to spend time with [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and the No. 9 guys at the shop, and the pursuit of perfection is evident the second you walk through the door. I’m ready to climb through the window and get to work.”

The team said that they’ve requested a Playoff waiver for the race, which would be Elliott’s second after being forced to miss a handful of races earlier in the season following surgery for a snowboarding accident. Even if granted, this makes his road to the Playoffs even more difficult.

And the Playoffs are fast approaching. The regular season is now more than halfway over, and drivers without a win are anxiously looking at the Playoff cut line. Heading into Gateway, Alex Bowman is in, sitting sixteenth in the standings, and Ty Gibbs is out.

Chase Briscoe was sitting just four points outside the Playoff cutline, but one of NASCAR’s biggest-ever penalties – 120 points in both the owner standings and driver standings for Chase Briscoe, an additional loss of 25 Playoff points should Briscoe and the team qualify, and a $250,000 fine and suspension to the crew chief – that puts him languishing back in 31st in the current standings.

For Briscoe, consistency is out the window with a win being his ticket to the Playoffs. But he believes that Gateway is an opportunity to do so.

“The shorter tracks are places where we can go in, lead a lot of laps and get a lot of stage points, and hopefully win the race,” he said. “Last year, we were able to sit on the pole and lead laps before the blown tire, so we know that we have a car and setup that’s capable, it’s just a matter of applying the differences to what this year brings.”

His Stewart-Haas Racing teammates are quietly confident as well. Except for Kevin Harvick, who sits fourth in the points, the team has struggled, with the only bright spot being strong runs at Martinsville earlier this season.

“I’ve had this race circled on the calendar all year,” Almirola said. “I love the way this track races and we had a car fast enough to win it last year. Our cars have continued to show consistent speed over the past few weekends, too.”

“If last year was any indication, I think you’re going to see Stewart-Haas up front as we saw in Martinsville – hopefully dominating the race again, which is where we belong.”

Xfinity series heads out to Portland for a road course

Contrary to last year’s thrilling rain race, this year’s Pacific Office Automation 147 at Portland International Raceway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is forecast for sunny skies.

Also unlike last year, road course veteran AJ Allmendinger won’t be out on track, instead competing in the Cup Series race at Gateway across the country.

That leaves the trophy for an Xfinity Series regular at the 12-turn, 1.967-mile road course, but getting it will be a challenge.

Justin Allgaier finished fifth at the track last season. He carries the momentum of the most recent series win at Charlotte, but he acknowledges the difficulty at Portland.

“Portland is definitely a unique and challenging road course,” said Allgaier. “We were able to come away with a top-five finish last year, and hopefully we can replicate that same success again this weekend with our BRANDT Professional Agriculture Chevrolet.”

Still, he said, “We have a lot of momentum on our side right now, especially after getting the win in Charlotte, and I know that [crew chief] Jim [Pohlman’ and the guys on this No. 7 team are ready to get after it again and race for the win on Saturday.”

Other drivers are ready to embrace the challenge, including the Stewart Haas duo of Cole Custer and Riley Herbst.

“This is a race weekend that I’ve really been looking forward to,” Cole Custer. “I’ve never been there, but it’s a new challenge and I’m ready for it. Our road-course cars have been really good this year. I think we’ll have a shot to go there and compete for a win.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of having everything go right. You never know at Portland if it’s going to rain or what’s going to happen. Road-course races are always unpredictable. You just have to go there and make sure you’re there at the end. Hopefully we can do that and be in a good spot.”

Riley Herbst, who has a karting background also competing in ARCA on Friday at the track for extra experience. He expects to be good at the road course, even if the result didn’t reflect his experience.

“You never know what to expect from road courses,” Herbst said. “We had a fast No. 98 Monster Energy Ford Mustang when we came here last year. Honestly, despite the early end to our day last year, I still really like this track. It’s fun. I feel like it’s a new challenge and I’m ready for it.”

Zane Smith looks to turn season around in Truck Series at Gateway

Zane Smith comes into Kansas in a bit of a dry spell. Despite winning twice earlier this season, the defending series champion comes into Saturday’s Toyota 200 at World Wide Technology Raceway (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with all three of his most recent finishes outside the top twenty.

It’s been a whole host of issues that have contributed to the poor performance for the Front Row Motorsports driver.

“Darlington for one, having engine issues, and then kind of rebound at North Wilkesboro and had such a good truck after starting in the back and driving up to second, and then me speeding on pit road during that final stop frustrated me even more,” Smith said.

“Then we went into Charlotte, and I knew how important clean air was on the truck and we had a parts failure of gear oils spraying the rear tires while running the truck race. I’m not blaming that on why I spun out, but I don’t think that really helped.”

“We got to third in the truck race and spun out in front of the field and got more damage, so my truck guys have been working their butts off trying to fix all these trucks and trying to stay competitive.”

Smith has had other racing on his mind, culminating in a Cup Series top-ten at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But his Truck Series campaign just isn’t going the right direction, and he says his team is changing its focus.

“It’s just kind of unfortunate that circumstances cost us a few possible race wins and good finishes and a lot of points over the past three weeks, but we’re still digging and trying to get some momentum back,” Smith said. “It would be a different story if we just flat-out sucked and we were wrecking trucks, but we’re at least going for it and that’s my intention of how I went into it this year of me hoping it’s my last year in truck.”

“My full focus was trophies are the only thing that matters and unfortunately that’s kind of cost me some points and some wrecked trucks. It’s probably time to tone it back some and focus on points and just get some good runs in general.”

But there will be some motivated competition for Smith in the form of Ben Rhodes. He won the first Triple Truck Challenge last week at Charlotte, which came with a $50,000. If Rhodes wins again at Gateway, he’ll make it $150,000. Plus, the bonus increases to $500,000 if Rhodes can sweep all three races by winning at Nashville too.

PORTLAND, OREGON – JUNE 04: Ty Gibbs, driver of the #54 He Gets Us Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pacific Office Automation 147 at Portland International Raceway on June 04, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Enjoy Illinois 300 Presented by TicketSmarter
The Place: World Wide Technology Raceway
The Date: Sunday, June 4
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,425,976
TV: FS1, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (240 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 140), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 240)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Pacific Office Automation 147
The Place: Portland International Raceway
The Date: Saturday, June 3
The Time: 4:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,376,231
TV: FS1, 4 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 147.75 miles (75 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 25),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 50), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 75)

Next Race: Toyota 200
The Place: World Wide Technology Raceway
The Date: Saturday, June 3
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $738,514
TV: FS1, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200 miles (160 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 35),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 70), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)

Owen Johnson