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NASCAR coming to Chicagoland Speedway this weekend

Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Hawk/Carlisle Ford, waits in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. | Sean Gardner/Getty Images

NASCAR is coming to the Chicagoland Speedway this weekend. And it’s only by coincidence that the Joliet racetrack’s annual event, called Stars and Stripes Weekend, falls just before Independence Day.

The event, which begins Thursday, has four races leading up to the headliner Sunday, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400.

The race, which is 267 laps, will draw some of the biggest names in stock-car racing, including Martin Truex Jr., Jimmy Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney. The winner automatically will punch his ticket for the playoffs, which begin Sept. 16.

Truex, a two-time defending champion at the Chicagoland Speedway, is among the favorites to win. This season, he has won two of the last three events and has finished fourth or better in four of the last five.

But spectators shouldn’t overlook Blaney. Although the 24-year-old hasn’t won a race in more than a year, he has finished in the top 10 in three of the last six races.

Blaney said his team doesn’t mind being called the underdog. If anything, it’s motivation.

“I think that’s pretty neat,” said Blaney, who has driven in Joliet several times since 2013. “I’ve never been a spotlight kind of guy. Just not my personality. I think it’s kind of cool to be named a dark horse.”

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Racetrack president Scott Paddock said that although he’s most excited for the Overton’s 400, there’s a lot more to do.

Paddock compared the Stars and Stripes Weekend to the Kentucky Derby and called the event a “bucket-list item.”

“It’s about so much more than the racing action,” Paddock said. “It’s this larger-than-life festival with incredible pageantry.”

Sunday will kick off with singer Jim Cornelison singing the national anthem with a military flyover.

“[All that] with the command to start your engines,” Paddock said, “I think it’s going to give you goosebumps and make you feel incredibly proud to be American.”

Former Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman will be the honorary pace-car driver for the Overton’s 400.

Before the main event, there’s the ARCA Series SCOTT 150 on Thursday, the Camping World Truck Series Overton’s 225 on Friday and the Xfinity Series Overton’s 300 on Saturday.

There also will be a variety of musical performances and activities for children.

New this year is “The Sound Track at Chicagoland Speedway.” In an attempt to “bring Chicago to the Chicagoland Speedway,” a few L train cars were transformed into a stage, where musicians such as country singer Randy Houser and Josh Gallagher from “The Voice” will perform.

Blaney is hosting a “Kid’s Club Crew Chief” event for the first time in Chicago. He’ll be interacting with young fans, teaching them about racing and reading them books.

“I feel like our sport is one of the best, if not the best, at interaction with fans from the athlete perspective,” Blaney said, “whether that’s just seeing them at the racetrack in the infield or doing appearances away from the track. I feel like at-the-track stuff, when we’re doing our job, another part of our job is interacting with fans.”

Paddock said he also is excited for the “Freedom Walk,” a showcase of U.S. military memorabilia and equipment dating to the Civil War.

NASCAR IN JOLIET

“Stars and Stripes Weekend” at Chicagoland Speedway

Thursday: ARCA Series SCOTT 150, 8 p.m.

Friday: Camping World Truck Series Overton’s 225, 8 p.m., FS1

Saturday: Xfinity Series Overton’s 300, 2:30 p.m., NBCSN

Sunday: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400, 1:30 p.m., NBCSN