- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't wait to get back to Chicagoland Speedway, one of the few redeeming moments of an otherwise forgettable 2005 campaign.
Then again, Matt Kenseth can't wait for another chance to go after the one that got away. Kenseth was the class of the field at the 1.5-mile facility a year ago, only to watch Earnhardt Jr. parlay a gamble with pit strategy into his lone victory of the year.
The good news for Kenseth was that the strong run still helped as he clawed through the pack and raced his way into the Chase for the Nextel Cup. For Earnhardt, the win was as good as it got, as he missed the Chase.
Entering the USG Sheetrock 400, Kenseth sits second in points with Earnhardt in third with nine races to go before the Chase field is set. Both are hoping strong runs this weekend will help them maintain the momentum as long as possible.
Earnhardt said he's "racing big-picture here, one race at a time." Still, he heads to Joliet, Ill., with a bit more confidence than he had at the facility a year ago.
"That was a cool win for us last year, because we had struggled so bad at tracks like Chicago," Earnhardt said. "To win there was a huge boost to our confidence. Our car was great that day. I hope we bring a car back as good as that one, because it was just awesome.
"It was fun winning a race with [interim crew chief] Steve Hmiel. I've had so much respect for Steve for years, and to win a race with him on my pit box was pretty special. But the best part was to get a win with that team -- that group of guys. They had been beaten up by the critics and a lot of fans last year. I had told them going in there was going to be a lot of pressure when they put on those red Budweiser uniforms, but I never thought it was going to be as cruel as it was for them. That win will always be for them."
Now, though, Hmiel is back serving as DEI's technical director and Tony Eury Jr. is Earnhardt's crew chief. The pairing is clicking off results, as he's finished in the top 15 in seven of the past eight races. He's been in the top 15 in 13 of the 17 races to date.
Kenseth, meanwhile, is looking for a happy homecoming.
"This weekend is going to be big for us," he said. "This is the closest we'll come to a home game since a lot of our guys on this team are from Wisconsin. So, we'll have a lot of support and, of course, everyone wants to perform well in front of their friends and family. Also, our sponsor, USG, is the title sponsor for the weekend and they're going to have a lot of their execs and employees in attendance, so we should have a big cheering section all around."
With the track now in its sixth season, Kenseth said he thinks Chicagoland will put on a good show this time around. It's virtually a given that the more the asphalt ages, the better the racing becomes as the track can develop a second groove.
Kenseth's car was good no matter what last year, which is why watching the win slip away was so painful.
"We had an excellent car there last year and did everything right up until the end and got beat on pit strategy," he said. "But Chicago's a fun track. It's wide and has a lot of banking."
Crew chief Robbie Reiser couldn't feel much better about the car Kenseth will be running. It ended up in Victory Lane at California Speedway and finished second at both Las Vegas and Texas. In its other two starts, this particular Roush Racing Ford was fifth at Lowe's Motor Speedway and 13th in a rain-shortened race at Michigan.
While Kenseth and Earnhardt focus on the point standings, one of Kenseth's teammates will have a different goal in mind. Todd Kluever, slated to replace Mark Martin in Roush's No. 6 car next year, will be trying to make his Nextel Cup debut at Chicagoland.
The winner of Roush's tryout process known as the Gong Show two years ago, Kluever won Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2005 before jumping to the Busch Series this season.
Now he's gearing up for the ultimate step where NASCAR's concerned.
"I couldn't be more excited for this weekend," Kluever said. "It's hard to believe two years ago I was racing in the ASA Series and watching it fall apart. I didn't know what was going to happen to my racing career. Now I'm going to be making my Nextel Cup debut driving for Jack Roush. If anyone would have told me that two years ago, I never would have believed it. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, especially with an organization like Roush Racing.
"I tested the Cup car a few weeks ago at Kentucky and had an awesome test. Frank Stoddard will be my crew chief and Jimmy Fennig will be there as well, so I've got two really talented, knowledgeable guys helping me. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to race 700 miles [including the Busch race] in one weekend. Sunday will be my mom's birthday so a good finish would really make for a fun birthday party that night."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won last year at Chicagoland, beating Matt Kenseth on pit strategy. Both drivers can't wait to get back, writes Mark Ashenfelter.