Kevin Harvick believes it's too early to give Gateway a comparison. (HHP/Chris Owens)

A Mixed Bag Of Unknowns At Gateway

The debut of World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill., on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule this weekend has fans clamoring at the fences to see how the drivers will adapt to the facility that has never before hosted the series.

As teams prepare for the Enjoy Illinois 300, they’re looking for similar data that can be brought from various tracks and applied to the 1.25-mile oval. 

Logano wrapped up first practice on Friday in first. (HHP/Chris Owens)

Joey Logano, whose last race in Gateway occurred 14 years ago in a fourth-generation NASCAR Xfinity Series Toyota, feels that Phoenix Raceway has the most similarities. However, he also sees a wide variety of differences between the two ovals.  

“I think Phoenix is probably the closest comparison you can make with three and four to one and two at Phoenix,” Logano said. “There are also some differences. You have a flat, long corner at Phoenix and a banked corner in Phoenix even though the shape is a triangle and this is a true oval. The way the corners are laid out there are some similarities there. You are definitely slowing down a lot more in one and two here than you do at three and four in Phoenix.”

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick feels that it’s too early to tell what track WWTR compares to, with the Next Gen car throwing curveballs at teams every week when they unload. 

“It is obviously a flat race track and I think as you look at this particular car it is kind of a crap shoot every week until you have some notes and know what you fight and where you are good or bad,” Harvick said. “We were all good at Phoenix, so hopefully some of that carries over. I would consider this a much different race track than Phoenix, just because of turns one and two and how unique it is with possibly downshifting twice and all the things that could happen.”

Shifting quickly became the talk of Friday’s lone practice session, with drivers grinding up and down through the gears in search of the fastest route around the track, with a completely different beast underneath them to tame. 

Harvick qualified 20th for Sunday’s race. (HHP/Jim Fluharty)

“I think I ran my first race here in probably 1998 in the Truck Series,” Harvick said. “I remember shifting in the Busch Series car. That corner is so tight down there that you have to be able to have something to get it out because otherwise everyone just stomps the throttle and it doesn’t go anywhere because it isn’t turning any RPMs. I like less rules. The less rules the better. It is easier to interpret.”

After having the fastest time in practice on Friday, Logano’s reaction to the amount of shifting was simple, yet telling for how difficult the weekend may be for Cup Series drivers. 

“I felt like a trucker with as many gears as I grabbed,” Logano said.

Making his 600th NASCAR Cup Series start on Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. will roll off 13th when the green flag waves. 

The driver of the No. 19 Toyota feels there’s a big adjustment for the drivers, with the various characteristics on track. 

“It’s kind of unique how this place is, especially with all of the shifting that we are doing,” Truex Jr. said. “It’s a unique track. The transitions into the corners, downshifting twice in turn one, it’s just really, really different. Once you get into the corner in three and four, it’s really similar to Phoenix, I think – other than it’s more bottom dominate. You can’t really move around as much. (Turns) one and two are not like anything we go to. Fun track when your car is working well, but we were off pretty far to start.”

Without any more track time before the race on Sunday, the concern for the drivers shifts to how competitive the racing will be. 

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney voiced his concern, boldly stating to not expect much passing around the 1.25-mile oval. 

Blaney doesn’t have high expectations for passing in Sunday’s race. (HHP/Chris Owens)

“I raced here a long time ago but passing is going to be very rare on Sunday,” Blaney said. “That is the best way I can put it. If you get behind somebody you are stuck and can’t go anywhere. Hopefully the track widens out. Hopefully, they do something about that. I figured they would have done something before we came here. I thought our practice was decent but it puts a bigger emphasis on qualifying up front tomorrow and then trying to stay up front.”

Blaney’s teammate, Logano, wasn’t as skeptical, believing that the groove in certain corners began to widen out before Friday’s practice ended. 

“Turn one and two is one of the best corners in our sport,” Logano said. “You can move around and try different things and you are shifting. It is fun to be able to get off the gas pedal and on the brake and manage both pedals again. I have enjoyed that. Three and four is a part of the track where you really got to push yourself and hustle it. It makes for a pretty fun track to go around by yourself. We will see what the race is like. It seems like one and two are already taking rubber and cars are moving up the race track already.”

Denny Hamlin, who won a Xfinity Series pole at the track in 2006, voiced a similar opinion to Logano, mentioning that the characteristics of the Next Gen cars will make or break how competitive the racing will be. 

“Turns one and two, it seemed like were starting to widen out a little bit,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully, we can have multiple lanes. (Turns) three and four will probably be a little bit of a challenge to have multiple lanes, but you never know. Our cars don’t like single lane tracks. They like ones that can spread out, hopefully, this one of the better short tracks that we have. It drives like a short track. It’s something that we certainly need to work on – short, flat tracks, it seems like the cars struggled, but you never know. This weekend could be different.”