Whether in baseball with the Cardinals, hockey with the Blues, or once upon a time in NFL football with the Cardinals and Rams, the city of St. Louis has long proven to be a strong sports town. And not far from the Gateway arch that separates Missouri from Illinois, there has for years stood a well-kept secret -- a NASCAR racetrack -- that has not been taken full advantage of until now.
This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to St. Louis and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway for the very first running of the Enjoy Illinois 300. First constructed in 1967 for drag racing and road racing, Gateway was converted into a 1.25 mile flat oval in the mid-1990s, and for over 10 years the track served as an annual stop for both the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
What has made Gateway a favorite among fans and competitors is its unique, asymmetrical configuration: As the backstretch runs parallel to Illinois Route 203, Turns 1 and 2 feature a much tighter radius than Turns 3 and 4, and they are also banked at 11 degrees compared to nine degree banks at the other end of the racetrack. The result is a track that combines long straightaways and high speeds with heavy braking zones and short track characteristics.
How to watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Gateway
Date: Sunday, June 5
Location: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway -- Madison, Illinois
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Stream: fuboTV (get access now)
What to watch
- Although this is the inaugural Cup race at Gateway, the track is far from an unknown for most of the field. Many drivers in the Cup Series field raced at Gateway on their way up the ranks, and quite a number of them have been fortunate enough to visit the speedway's winner's circle.
When Gateway was part of the Xfinity Series schedule from 1997 to 2010, race winners included Martin Truex Jr. (2004), Kyle Busch (2009), and Brad Keselowski (2010). It has more recent been a fixture on the Truck Series schedule, with winners including Bubba Wallace (2014), Cole Custer (2015), Christopher Bell (2016), Justin Haley (2018), and Ross Chastain (2019). Kevin Harvick has three wins at Gateway, first in Xfinity in 2000 and 2001 and then in Trucks in 2010.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is a chunk of the Cup Series field that will be racing at Gateway for the very first time this weekend. Drivers entered in Sunday's race with no prior Gateway experience include Kyle Larson, Corey LaJoie, Chase Elliott, Parker Kligerman, A.J. Allmendinger, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, Cody Ware, Josh Bilicki, B.J. McLeod, and Daniel Suarez.
The natural impulse would be to suggest that those drivers who have raced and won at Gateway before will have a significant advantage over those who have not, but that remains to be seen.
"I would say that just being able to run there before, having an idea of the racetrack itself, would give you a little bit more than maybe somebody that's never been there before," Kyle Busch told reporters at Charlotte last week. "But honestly, having a normal practice weekend, I think that it'll kind of shake out pretty evenly at the end of the day."
- Whether or not drivers in the Cup Series know what to expect from Gateway or not, what is widely expected is that shifting will play a factor in this weekend's race. The new five-speed transmission of the Next Gen car has made shifting more of a factor on ovals, particularly flatter tracks that emphasize braking on corner entry and maximizing corner exit speeds.
Even with traditional four-speed transmissions, shifting at Gateway has already been a hidden element of Truck Series races there as drivers try to maximize their RPMs and accelerate as quickly as possible. With the five-speed transmission that Cup cars now feature, and the shifting seen at racetracks earlier this season that usually did not see drivers shift up and down, it stands to reason that how often and how efficiently drivers go through their gears will make a big difference this weekend.
- Last week at Charlotte, Denny Hamlin became just the third repeat winner of 2022 at an important point on the schedule. It was at this time last year that the dominant driver of the season began to separate himself from the rest of the field, as Kyle Larson went from having one win on the year to rattling off three wins in a row at Charlotte, Sonoma, and Nashville.
So far, no one has been head and shoulders above the competition this season, but there are three drivers who are positioned to potentially start to break away. William Byron leads all drivers in laps led this season (570), and he could have as many as four wins had the final laps at Richmond and Darlington played out differently. Ross Chastain has been a contender week-in and week-out, leading all drivers with seven top-5 finishes and coming off a Coca-Cola 600 performance that saw him lead the most laps in a race for the third time this season. And the sleeping giant of Denny Hamlin looks wide awake, as he's gone from an extremely poor start to the year to third on the playoff leaderboard by virtue of a pair of victories.
Pick to Win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Ross Chastain (+850): Recency bias plays somewhat of a factor here, as Chastain was victorious the last time he raced at Gateway in the Truck Series in 2019. But that win notwithstanding, it's become increasingly difficult to not consider Chastain as a pick to win every single week. He's led 270 laps combined over the last five weeks, including a race-high 153 in the Coca-Cola 600 last week. Whether it be road courses, short tracks, or speedways, he's been up at the front and in the mix at a great variety of racetracks. And more and more, he's actively making the leap from breakout driver to a legitimate championship contender.
To add to that argument, look back to Chastain's second-place finish at Phoenix in March -- a track that shares some similarities with Gateway this weekend. No matter where the Cup Series goes, Chastain is becoming a better and better bet.