Gateway offers an opportunity for Cup playoff underdogs

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MADISON, Ill. — Kevin Harvick is taking a pragmatic approach to the NASCAR version of the playoffs, considering he has yet to win to qualify and is only 31 points over the cutoff heading into the Cup Series debut at World Wide Technology Raceway.

“Just tell me where I am at the end of 26. If we’re in, we’re in. If we’re out, we’re out,” said Harvick, the 2014 champion, who qualified for the playoffs every year since 2009. “I have so many other things to think about trying to help with the cars and going to different places that you can’t really keep track of the points.”

At least he should have some confidence in the track long called simply “Gateway”.

Harvick, 46, remembers driving Xfinity Series cars around the 1 1/4 mile hairpin east of St. Louis in the late 1990s and early 2000s , including a pair of victories over two decades ago. And he won a Truck Series race in 2010, just before the track closed due to an economic downturn.

It was resurrected by local businessman Curtis Francois and has grown and evolved over the past decade, leading to the return of not just the Truck Series but also IndyCar and, for the first time on Sunday, NASCAR’s first series.

While two dozen field riders have experience at Gateway, Harvick is among nine who have won on the track in the Xfinity or Truck Series. And of those nine, he is one of seven who have yet to win a Cup race this season: Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Justin Haley are the others.

“I think every year we should take on a new schedule, have different places to go, really diversify,” said Bell, who is 58 points over the threshold with 12 races to go before the playoffs. “Going to the slopes, especially twice a year, like we do, I feel like it dilutes the event. It would be really nice if we could go to the venues once a year or maybe every two years and just rotate the schedule to make each event more special and popular. I think it would make every race a bigger deal.

It has certainly been a big deal for St. Louis. Thousands of fans turned out for the first practice session on Friday evening, and they were out early on Saturday for Cup qualifying with more than 30,000 expected for the afternoon truck race.

Chase Briscoe will sit on the pole for Sunday’s race. It’s already sold out, which means more than 60,000 fans in the long front stand, seats in turns 1 and 2, nearby campgrounds and hospitality areas.

As well as being new to many drivers, the track itself is an oddity: it’s shaped like an egg with tight first and second turns and fast third and fourth turns. That means drivers have to downshift twice at the end of the front stretch and once at the end of the rear stretch, which could make for a long day in temperatures expected to reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius).

“It just helped me find my way to the track,” Tyler Reddick said of his own experience in three Truck Series races at Gateway. “Other than that, I don’t know how much it helps. It has been repaved. The car is very different. It’s similar, but in many ways the whole truck experience didn’t help my prep.

Keselowski wasn’t sure he had Zane Smith’s phone number when he learned his RFK Racing teammate Chris Buescher had tested positive for COVID-19 this week. But after texting Smith to make sure, Keselowski called and offered the 22-year-old a chance on his Cup debut this weekend.

“I’ve been watching Zane for a while and I’m impressed with what he does,” Keselowski said as he placed him in the #17 car. “Hopefully he has a solid outing for the rest of his career and we’ll have Chris back next week.”

There’s a lot at stake: Buescher is 21st in the standings and is still in contention for a playoff spot.

Buescher crashed last Sunday night in Charlotte, flipping his Ford onto its roof, and it took security guards a while to get him out of the car. Keselowski thought it was a few minutes but someone told him he was closer to 7 minutes before Buescher, who was uninjured in the wreckage, managed to get out.

Keselowski hopes former driver Jeff Burton, who heads the Drivers’ Advisory Council, will look into the incident.

“It will never be zero,” Keselowski said, “but we can all agree that seven is too long.”

Kyle Larson is the favorite with odds of 4/1 for Sunday’s race, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Chase Elliot was next at 11/2 with Denny Hamlin, last week’s winner in Charlotte, and William Byron at 15/2.

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