MADISON, ILLINOIS - JUNE 02:  A general view of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing as they flyover prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at WWT Raceway on June 02, 2024 in Madison, Illinois. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) | Getty Images
MADISON, ILLINOIS - JUNE 02: A general view of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing as they flyover prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at WWT Raceway on June 02, 2024 in Madison, Illinois. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Enjoy Illinois 300 kept us guessing until the finish

Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway drove home an oft-repeated yet important point, namely that what keeps us watching a race to the finish is the delightful unpredictability of the sport.

If Yogi Berra’s quaint cliché “It ain’t over till it’s over” is an apt mantra for a sport other than baseball, that sport would be NASCAR racing.

The 2024 season already has given us two races where the winners and pursuers were separated by the blink of an eye—and not identified until the last millisecond.

In a three-wide race to the stripe at Atlanta Motor Speedway in February, Daniel Suarez beat runner-up Ryan Blaney buy 0.003 seconds and third-place finisher Kyle Busch by 0.007 seconds—NASCAR’s closest finish among three cars.

Last month at Kansas Speedway, NASCAR needed a photo to determine that Kyle Larson had crossed the stripe 0.001 seconds ahead of Chris Buescher in the closest finish in Cup Series history.

Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 provided no such close finish, but there were enough twists and turns in the final 20 laps to satisfy an avid consumer of mystery novels.

With a three-pit-stop strategy to everyone else’s four or more, Team Penske drivers Austin Cindric, Blaney and Joey Logano stayed on the track to start the final stage of the race. Christopher Bell, whose No. 20 Toyota was arguably the fastest car in the race, restarted 12th on fresh tires on Lap 149.

From that point, the race defied its own history and doubtless confounded the carefully laid plans of Cup crew chiefs.

The inaugural race at Gateway in 2022 featured four caution flags in the final stage. The number grew to six in the final 90 laps last year.

Sunday’s race, on the other hand, ran under a green flag for the entire final stage, and therein lay the seeds of the captivating drama that unfolded in the closing laps.

Blaney pitted with 64 laps left and leap-frogged Cindric, who came to pit road a lap later. Bell ran long during the pit cycle, passed Logano for the top spot on Lap 178 and pitted from the lead on Lap 194.

Blaney cycled back to the lead on Lap 217 of 240 with Bell in pursuit on fresher tires. The two waged an intense battle, with Bell able to pull alongside in the bottom lane but unable to clear Blaney’s Ford.

At that point, it seemed inevitable that Bell would eventually complete the pass and win the race in the fastest car. Nope. Bell’s car apparently lost a cylinder and slowed dramatically, leaving Blaney with a comfortable lead over Cindric as Bell faded.

When Blaney hit race traffic, Cindric closed the margin to 1.1 seconds with two laps left. Negotiating Turns 3 and 4 on the white-flag lap, Blaney inexplicably ran out of fuel, and Cindric charged past.

A lap later, Cindric took the checkered flag as the improbable winner and claimed a Playoff spot few expected him to fill. Before Sunday’s race, Cindric’s fourth-place result at Atlanta had been his only top 10 of the season. He entered the race 20th in the Cup standings, well below the Playoff cut line.

Cindric had come to the 1.25-mile track in the Greater St. Louis area hobbled by a winless streak of 85 races, dating to his first Cup victory in the 2022 Daytona 500, but he never lost his singular purpose.

“I’ve been a pretty mentally strong person,” he said on Tuesday during a question-and-answer session with reporters. “I’ve had to learn a lot in a short amount of time in a lot of different situations in race cars. I’ve worked with a ton of different people. I feel like I’m a pretty adaptable person in a lot of ways, but it’s what it takes.

“Past that, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of how to do it. Everybody’s experiences are different, but how bad do you want it? That’s really what it all boils down to, and how important is it to you? I think I alluded to on Sunday that this is by far the most important thing that I have going on, and it’s how I want it.”

— NASCAR News Wire —