- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Gateway International Raceway doesn't have the mystique that accompanies Darlington Raceway, the sport's first superspeedway. Without a Sprint Cup Series race on its schedule, the track located in Madison, Ill., flies pretty much under the radar.
But when Nationwide Series drivers take to the challenging 1.25-mile oval for Saturday night's Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250, the veterans know the going won't be easy.
"The biggest thing is just to know that your car is going to react totally different on both ends of the racetrack," driver Jason Keller said. "It's much like the Darlington mentality of it's not going to handle good on both ends because they're so different. It's unique in that sense."
"It's kind of like a flat Darlington," Mike Wallace said. "If you look at it from the air, it's an egg-shaped racetrack and it's a compromise track. It's no different than any flat track we go to. The car's got to handle good and drive through the middle good, and you've got to have a lot of luck."
And a little experience doesn't hurt, either. That's something a driver such as Joey Logano doesn't have. But after watching others drive Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Toyota the past three races, the 18-year-old simply is glad to be back in the seat this weekend.
Not surprisingly, the driver who hasn't raced at Gateway is doing all he can to prepare.
"I've been playing video games the last couple of days just to see what the track layout is like," said Logano, who has one win (Kentucky) and three top-10s in four starts. "I've been told that Gateway has just about the same amount of banking as Kentucky, but it's obviously shaped differently and races differently. From what I've been told, there are two completely different ends to the racetrack. I'm looking forward to the challenge of a new track, though."
Logano has lived up to the intense hype that accompanied his debut in the series a week after his 18th birthday, but it's worth noting that he'd had experience at Dover, Nashville, Kentucky and Milwaukee. Heading to Gateway, this is the first time he's starting truly from scratch.
Luckily for Logano, crew chief Dave Rogers has plenty of experience at Gateway.
"I usually pick Dave's brain as much as I can before we even get to the racetrack. We try to get a game plan together before practice even starts and know if we want to be loose or tight, or whatever we want to do, in practice," Logano said. "As far as getting used to the track, it's pretty much up to me since I can play the video games and talk to Dave. But for the most part, it's all about going out there and figuring it out just like any other racetrack."
A year ago, Landon Cassill was the driver heading to Gateway for the first time in the Nationwide Series, as he'd just celebrated his 18th birthday. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports (which has now merged its Nationwide Series operation with JR Motorsports), Cassill garnered plenty of attention by qualifying sixth.
An accident left him 32nd in his Nationwide debut, but Cassill has learned a lot in the interim and looks to have a better race this time around. Still, he'll always have fond memories of his debut.
"It was pretty special being able to qualify so well last year in my first career Nationwide Series start, and I think we could do it again this time around," Cassill said. "I just want to go there and wear the other cars out. I think we're going to have a good flat-track race car like we had at Loudon, so we can go tear them up this weekend."
For that to happen, Cassill will need to beat Sprint Cup regulars such as Clint Bowyer, who will be looking to take another step toward the Nationwide Series championship. In three starts at Gateway, Bowyer's top finish was a second-place effort in 2006.
Bowyer is aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
"The straightaways are really long -- one corner is tight and one corner is big. I like how both ends are a little bit different," Bowyer said. "There is no perfect setup. You have to compromise a little bit to get the car to turn down in [Turns] 1 and 2 and not turn too much in the sweeping corner in 3 and 4. It's a really fun racetrack."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.