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A mixed bag of strangers at Gateway

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

The debut of World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule this weekend will have fans screaming at the fences to see how the drivers will adapt to the facility in a way the series has never done before has hosted.

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

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Logano finished first practice session on Friday. (HHP/Chris Owens)

Joey Logano, whose last race at Gateway was in a fourth-generation NASCAR Xfinity Series Toyota 14 years ago, thinks Phoenix Raceway bears the greatest similarities. However, he also sees many differences between the two ovals.

“I think Phoenix is ​​probably the best comparison you can do with three and four to one and two at Phoenix,” Logano said. “There are also some differences. They have a flat long corner at Phoenix and a banked turn at Phoenix, although the shape is a triangle and this is a true oval. The way the corners are arranged has some similarities. They definitely slow down a lot more at one and two here than at three and four in Phoenix.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick feels it’s too early to tell what track WWTR compares to, given the next-gen car throws corner balls at teams every week as they offload.

“It’s obviously a flat circuit and I think every week when you look at this particular car it’s kind of a crap shoot until you have some notes and you know what you’re up against and where you’re good and bad,” Harvick said . “We were all good at Phoenix so hopefully some of that carries over. I would consider this a very different circuit to Phoenix just because of turns one and two and how unique it is with potentially twice downshifting and all the things that could happen.”

Shifting gears quickly became the talk of Friday’s solitary practice session, which saw drivers grind up and down the gears in search of the quickest route on the track, with a completely different beast among them to tame.

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

“I think I probably did my first Truck Series race here in 1998,” said Harvick. “I remember shifting gears in the Busch series car. That corner down there is so tight you have to have something to get it out because otherwise everyone is just stepping on the gas and it’s going nowhere because it’s not revving. I like fewer rules. The fewer rules, the better. It’s easier to interpret.”

After posting the fastest time in practice on Friday, Logano’s reaction to the number of shifts was simple but still indicative of how difficult the weekend can be for Cup Series drivers.

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

Martin Truex Jr. starts Sunday in his 600th NASCAR Cup Series and finishes 13thth when the green flag flies.

The driver of the #19 Toyota feels that there is a great deal of customization for the drivers, with the different characteristics on the track.

“It’s kind of unique the way this place is, especially with all the changes we’re making,” Truex Jr. said. “It’s a unique track. The transitions into the corners, the two downshifts into 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 – except that it’s more dominated from below. You can’t move that much. (Turns) one and two ain’t like anything where we’re going. A fun track when the car works well, but we were quite far away at the beginning.”

With no more track time before Sunday’s race, the drivers’ concern shifts to how competitive the race will be.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney expressed his concern and bravely stated that he didn’t have much to look forward to when he lapped the 1.25 mile oval.

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

“I raced here a long time ago, but on Sunday it will be very rare for me to overtake,” said Blaney. “That’s the best way I can put it. If you get behind someone, you’re stuck with nowhere to go. Hopefully the track will be wider. Hopefully they do something about it. I thought they did something before we came here. I found our training decent but it puts more emphasis on qualifying up front tomorrow and then trying to stay up front.”

Blaney’s teammate Logano wasn’t so skeptical, believing the groove was starting to widen on certain corners before practice ended on Friday.

“Turn one and two is one of the best corners in our sport,” said Logano. “You can move and try different things and you change. It’s fun to step off the gas pedal and step on the brake and regain control of both pedals. I enjoyed that. Three and four is a part of the track where you really have to make an effort and push. It’s a pretty fun track to drive around on your own. We’ll see how the race goes. It looks like one and two are already taking rubber and cars are already driving up the circuit.”

Denny Hamlin, who won an Xfinity Series pole at the track in 2006, expressed a similar opinion to Logano, mentioning that the characteristics of the next-gen cars will determine the competitiveness of the races.

“Turns one and two seemed to widen out a bit,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully we can have multiple lanes. (Turns) three and four will probably be a 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, hopefully this is one of the better short tracks we have. It drives like a short track. We definitely need to work on that – short, flat stretches, it seems like the cars are struggling but you never know. This weekend could be different.”

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