Night race and extra time off? Bonus!
JOLIET, Ill. -- Night time is the right time, especially Saturday night.
No, that's not a slogan for Paris Hilton. Well, maybe it is, but we're talking about the time when most Sprint Cup drivers prefer to race.
They'll get their way for the second consecutive weekend with the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
"I'd like night racing everywhere," Greg Biffle said. "It's a little bit cooler inside the car and I think it's more exciting to watch the race under the lights."
Some drivers are better at it than others. Judging by this season, Mark Martin should be a favorite at on the 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval. Two of Martin's three victories this year came in night events at Phoenix and Darlington.
Kyle Busch also has a knack for getting it done under the lights. He won under the lights at Richmond in May and swept the weekend last year at Chicagoland, winning the Nationwide race Friday night and the Cup race Saturday night with a last-lap pass of Jimmie Johnson.
Busch's car was at its best at the end, a big key to success in night racing. As the air gets cooler, the track conditions change and the car handles differently, but Busch said the Joliet oval surprised him last year.
"The biggest thing I learned last year was the track didn't change much," Busch said. "It just got cooler and gained grip. But the balance didn't change a lot."
Whatever happens, one of the best things for the drivers and crews is a rare Sunday at home. In this case, it's more time for a long break. The teams are off next weekend before heading to Indianapolis for the Allstate 400 at The Brickyard on July 26.
"This gives everyone a chance to have an extra day," Matt Kenseth said. "And I think the fans have a lot of fun at night. You can see all the sparks fly and it makes it pretty exciting.
"I really like night racing, especially Saturday night. That's where we all started, racing on local tracks on Saturday nights."
Biffle does have one complaint about Saturday night racing.
"There's a lot of standing around in the daytime waiting for the event to start," he said. "But it gives us a day off, and it almost feels like a whole weekend off when you get a Sunday off."
That Sunday off feels a lot better coming off a strong performance on Saturday night.
Doing well at Chicagoland requires some unique adjustments. Contrary to popular opinion, all 1.5-mile ovals are not the same.
"The back straightaway has a curve in it," Jeff Burton pointed out about the Joliet track. "You actually have to turn the wheel a little bit down the back stretch. It reminds me of a big Richmond-style track."
Saturday is the ninth Cup race at Chicagoland since the speedway opened in 2001. Drivers and crew chiefs say the pavement has changed from the one-groove track it was when it opened.
They say that Chicago is supposed to be just like Kansas, but I've always run a lot better at Kansas.” -- Clint Bowyer
"When we first started racing there, you just could not pass, ever," said Lance McGrew, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. "You ran the bottom of the racetrack and that's it.
"Now that groove tends to widen up a little bit where you have a couple lanes, so it's a lot better racing there than it used to be. But ultimately, you want your car to run good on the bottom of the racetrack."
Chicagoland is similar to Kansas Speedway because neither intermediate oval has a lot of banking compared to high-banked tracks like Texas, Atlanta and Charlotte.
"They say that Chicago is supposed to be just like Kansas, but I've always run a lot better at Kansas," Clint Bowyer said. "We always use Chicago as a test session for Kansas [a Chase race on Oct. 4].
"I think the groove has widened out over time [at Chicagoland], without a doubt. But the race is still won or lost on the bottom."
Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's crew chief, said he also uses Chicagoland as a gauge on what the team will need at Kansas.
"You make sure you have good notes so you'll be prepared for Kansas during the Chase," said Letarte, who guided Gordon to his only Chicagoland victory in 2006. "But [Chicagoland] is really a cross between Michigan and Las Vegas. It's another big smooth intermediate track."
Michigan and Las Vegas are not night races. Neither is the Kansas event.
Night time is the right time for the guys behind the wheel.
"I definitely prefer racing at night," David Ragan said. "The cars look so much faster at night. Racing under the lights is fun for everyone."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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