Take a Bow, NASCAR; You Definitely Earned It in Chicago
Pessimistic. Skeptical. Cynical. Those were just some of the terms drivers and fans used over the last few weeks to describe running through downtown Chicago in NASCAR’s first-ever street course race. One vocal member of the industry went so far as to spout the narrative on how dangerous of an idea it was due to the gun violence in America’s third-biggest city.
They were all wrong. Totally wrong. Sunday’s race through Chicago was a smashing success — like smashing into the tire barrier in Turn 6. Here’s looking at you, Noah Gragson. Here’s a look back at a historic week for NASCAR and one that elevated the sport to another level.
NASCAR Chicago race week started ominously
Jimmie Johnson is considered one of the greatest in NASCAR history. The seven-time champion was looking forward to competing in the historic race, his fourth event of the year. Sadly, it never happened because Johnson withdrew from the event on Tuesday following the tragic death of his mother-in-law, father-in-law and nephew.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only tragedy connected to NASCAR for the week. According to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, a worker contracted by NASCAR to set up audio equipment for the race died on Friday after being electrocuted at the site. Duane Tabinski, 53, was injured and transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Cars on track and challenges becomes apparent
Saturday was the first day of on-track activity, with the Xfinity and Cup Series drivers practicing and qualifying. The difficulty of the 2.2-mile course became quite evident early on with some of the sport’s best, including a pair of Cup champions, Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott, involved in separate crashes during qualifying.
Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers pointed out how significant of a moment it was for his driver on Twitter. “To be clear, that is the first car @KevinHarvick has ever crashed in practice or qualifying and used a back up car in our 10 years.”
Weather postpones Xfinity Series race
After practice and qualifying ended, fans took in the Black Crowes concert as part of the race weekend festivities before the Xfinity race. Unfortunately, it was the only music that would happen over the weekend. Lightning in the area was the first delay of the weekend and started an uncertain waiting game for the race.
Eventually, with the forecast for more lightning in the area for hours, NASCAR officials had no option and announced the race would be postponed to Sunday. Cole Custer, who started on the pole and led the first 25 laps of Stage 1, would bring the Xfinity field back to green the next morning.
Interestingly, before returning to action on Sunday morning, a local from Chicago apparently decided to have some fun on the track Saturday night, somehow managing to get on the track and testing out the street circuit. No one could have known that would be the last on-track action for hours.
Cup Series race day and more delays due to historic rainfall
While the drivers, fans, and NASCAR officials all woke up on Sunday morning hopeful for improved weather, it wasn’t any better. In fact, it was worse. Much worse. Lightning was joined by its wetter counterpart and lots of it.
At 10:15 AM, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the city of Chicago and said it was a life-threatening situation. The governing body was put in the unenviable position of delaying the Xfinity race yet again. Drivers eventually got in their rain-soaked cars but never turned an official lap.
Just before 1 PM, and with no end to the rain in sight, NASCAR made the unprecedented move and declared Cole Custer the winner via a statement.
“With standing water and flooding a significant issue at the racetrack and throughout the city, there was no option to return to racing prior to shifting to NASCAR Cup Series race operations. Throughout the entire planning process for the Chicago Street Race, our relationship with the City of Chicago has been strong and among the most valuable assets in reaching this historic weekend. In the spirit of that partnership, returning on Monday for the completion of a NASCAR Xfinity Series event two laps short of halfway was an option we chose not to employ. Based on several unprecedented circumstances, NASCAR has made the decision to declare Cole Custer the winner of the race.”
After his celebration, Custer visited the media center and talked about how it was easily the strangest win in his career.
“Definitely probably the most awkward win I’ve been a part of,” he said. “Because you’re so disconnected from the race. You know we raced 24 hours ago. It’s definitely one of the weirdest wins I’ve ever been a part of, for sure. But we’ll take it.”
NASCAR calls audible on pre-race ceremoies
With the Xfinity race over, NASCAR could focus its efforts on the main event. But the rains continued and even intensified. Chicago received a record amount of rainfall for the day, with some areas in the downtown area reporting up to nine inches. The races weren’t the only things affected by the conditions as the city shut down numerous train lines and closed some expressways.
With the rain not letting up, NASCAR officials planned to hold pre-race ceremonies so the race could be the main focus when the weather cleared. But these pre-race ceremonies weren’t anything anyone had ever seen before.
They all took place in the media center. Reporters from around the world covering the event stopped what they were doing and stood when the gathered choir started singing the national anthem. It was only after the performance that everyone was clued in that it was just the rehearsal.
NBC carried the invocation and official national anthem from the media center 10 minutes later. Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, who was the grand marshal, also showed up in the media center prepared to give the command. But his duties would have to wait as the rains continued.
Over an hour later, with the rain almost gone and track conditions suitable for racing, Fields returned to the media center and gave the command.
Fans see entertaining race with lots of mishaps
After all the delays, pole-sitter Denny Hamlin led the field to green in a single-file start and crossed the line at 5:37 PM. His lead didn’t last a lap, but that wasn’t even the top story from the opening trip around the 12-turn circuit. Mishaps were.
Aric Almirola started the parade on Turn 5 with a spin. Just seconds later, Erik Jones drove it too deep into the next corner and escorted Brad Keselowski and Legacy MC teammate Noah Gragson with him into the wall of tires in Turn 6.
And that was just Lap 1.
On Lap 2, Turn 2, Hamlin got too hot, got sideways, and introduced himself to the tires. Notice a trend here?
Kyle Busch blasted Turn 6 on Lap 4, sending water exploding from the barrier as his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing car got windshield-deep in rubber.
Wet conditions remained on certain portions of the track throughout the race and, along with the changing concrete-asphalt surface and bumps on the heavily-trafficked roads, proved problematic for the drivers and entertaining for the fans, who, to their credit, turned out in force after enduring so many obstacles.
The biggest crash came early in Stage 3 when William Byron got hung up in the tires at Turn 11. Kevin Harvick tried to avoid the HMS car and spun. And the stack-up began. While there were 14 cars in the initial pileup, at one point, there were 23 cars stopped at the turn. And as one local noted in the media center, it was an official Chicago race with a massive traffic jam.
Historic NASCAR winner
The numerous accidents on the wet roads through the streets of downtown Chicago were quite entertaining for those in attendance and those watching from the windows and on the rooftops above in numerous nearby skyscrapers.
But the chef’s kiss on a historic day, which started hours earlier in nightmarish fashion with the delays, was another major piece of history as Shane van Gisbergen became the first driver in NASCAR’s modern era and first since Johnny Rutherford did it in 1963, to win his debut Cup race.
The three-time Supercars champion also became the first New Zealander to win a Cup race.
NASCAR deserves credit and future is bright
Van Gisbergen’s win was not good for the sport. It was fantastic. It brought a massive amount of international attention from Down Under. While not what the Cup regulars wanted to see, the 34-year-old’s ability to slice and dice his way through the field late in the race and school the competition showed them that plenty work remains in honing their craft on street courses.
Honing their craft on a street course. Who would have guessed that would have even been a thought as recently as a couple of years ago? Now, the race through the wet streets of the Windy City and on the shores of Lake Michigan will unquestionably go down as one of the biggest moments in the sport’s 75-year history.
The Next Gen car, which has taken so much grief since its introduction in 2022 and, deservedly so, delivered. How else do you explain Kyle Busch blasting the tires on Lap 4 and finishing fifth?
After the race, NASCAR president Steve Phelps was understandably pleased with the event and said that the city of Chicago was a great partner throughout it all.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcome in a city than what we felt here in Chicago,” he said. “The city just opened its arms to us and embraced us. It was awesome. And despite five or six inches of rain, just incredible.”
It was an incredible weekend for NASCAR, the teams, drivers, and fans, which was reportedly made up of 80% first-timers. Whatever the final breakdown, the bottom line is they turned out en masse. And they were part of a historic moment that showed the US-based motorsport isn’t second to any other racing series on the planet and has a future that is very bright.