Chicagoland Speedway prepared to host start of Sprint Cup Chase

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Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Matt Kenneth race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway last weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

After six years, Chicagoland Speedway president Scott Paddock understands the magnitude of being the official starting line for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase.

But even as experienced as he has become in overseeing the year-round planning that goes into hosting the first of 10 playoff races that lead up to the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead, Paddock still feels some pressure to make a good first impression.

Paddock acknowledges he likely won’t sleep much this weekend, one that he and his staff began planning for as soon as last year’s Chase kickoff race weekend ended. Although he is well-versed in the routine, Paddock is constantly on the lookout for innovative ways to make the atmosphere better than it was the year before.

“We know as our weekend goes, it kind of sets the table for the next nine weeks of the Chase,” Paddock said.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 on Sunday will headline four days of racing at the Joliet racetrack. This weekend marks the first time the track will host four races, including the ARCA series, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series.

In the Sprint Cup Series, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski pace the 16-car field that eventually will be cut down to four and that pundits say is wide-open.

Even drivers who will race in Joliet before the main event understand that the pressure-cooker environment surrounding the Chase will be evident all weekend.

“It’s like the playoffs,” said Elliott Sadler, who sits atop the XFINITY points standings heading into the series’ final regular-season race before its Chase begins next weekend in Kentucky. “Everything is always ramped up. Everybody is on a level playing field, and it has a playoff-style feel to it.

“The intensity is going to be better, the racing’s going to be closer. Everybody’s bringing their best stuff. You feel it big-time.”

So does Paddock, who knows that Chicagoland Speedway has developed a unique sense of character in its 15 years. The 1½ mile D-shaped oval has become known as a track that offers passing lanes and gives drivers plenty of room to operate.

Paddock equates the environment to the Kentucky Derby, an event known for its pageantry as much as the race itself.

Close to 1,000 race-day workers will help the weekend run as smooth as possible, which Paddock said will alleviate some of the pressure that goes into hosting the event. But after a year of planning, he’s ready to add to the reputation of a track that has become a staple on the NASCAR circuit.

“I think we’ve built equity in it, and I think people now recognize Chicago as the home to the Chase kickoff,” Paddock said. “When you can take an event like that and put it on a stage like Chicago, it takes a big event and just makes it bigger.”

Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.

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