The NASCAR Cup Series’ inaugural event on the streets of Chicago became a chaotic tale of three races on Sunday (July 2).
The first chapter ran before the racing surface was dry, filled with standing water; next, there was the segment after the track dried out; and then, one final sprint after NASCAR chose to shorten the race by 25 laps due to a threat of darkness. Toward the end, it was Justin Haley leading after pit strategy fell in his favor.
But Shane van Gisbergen would not be denied, a first-timer surging in NASCAR’s first street race during the modern era. The three-time Australian V8 Supercars Champion charged through the field to become the very first driver in 60 years to win a NASCAR Cup Series race in his debut.
It was a run that often defied belief at a course that began with just one wet-weather groove around the track. After the end of stage two, van Gisbergen found himself 18th and trapped in traffic. To fight through the field, most of those passes under green, and take the lead with a handful of laps to spare was a stroke of brilliance.
When asked by NBC Sports if he thought winning was possible, even van Gisbergen smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“No,” he said. “Of course not, but you always dream of that. Thank you so much to the Trackhouse team, Enhance Health and Project 91. Man, what an experience with the crowd out here. This was so cool, it’s what you dream of. Hopefully, I can come and do more [NASCAR events].
“The racing was good, and everyone was respectful. It was tough but a lot of fun.”
For Haley, his run was a season best, in position to capitalize on track position after pitting earlier than the frontrunners during a midrace caution, gambling the race wouldn’t make it to its scheduled distance of 100 laps. When NASCAR shortened the event to just 75 circuits, those in the lead pack were forced to pit a few laps later, giving a sudden edge to those dozen drivers on an alternate strategy.
Haley used that edge to sneak out front for 23 laps, a new career high. But he was ultimately unable to hold off the New Zealander down the stretch, 16-lap older tires leaving him a half-second behind on lap times.
“It was tough,” Haley told NBC Sports. “I put it in the tire barrier yesterday, and we stayed up all night and I stayed with the guys in the rain and we re-wrapped it and put a new body on it… Congrats to Project 91, it sucks obviously where we are right now and we aren’t in a position to win every week and coming that close obviously is not what you want. Just really proud of everyone of Kaulig Racing.
“What an awesome event. Can’t wait to come back next year.”
In fact, Haley and Elliott both had problems yesterday, with Elliott having to go to a backup car after crashing in qualifying. As for the driver of the No. 9, one of the sport’s most accomplished road racers simply shook his head, in disbelief he lost to a first-time Cup driver who races half-a-world away.
Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell, the winner of the first two stages, found themselves in massive trouble after NASCAR announced the race was going to be shortened. Among those who lost track position after having to pit in the second group of cars, they never recovered, each crashing into the tire barriers and finishing outside the top 15.
“When you’re racing to lap 100,” Bell said sarcastically after the event, “You can’t pit that early and make it.”
Polesitter Denny Hamlin made a mistake early in the race, smacking a tire barrier and never even led a lap; he finished 11th for his trouble. 2009 Formula 1 champion Jenson Button finished 21st after he made a mistake trying to pit early in the race, spinning out and nearly collecting Joey Logano in the process.
There were several memorable moments from the history-making event, which started 90 minutes late due to wet weather. The most rain to fall in Chicago since 1982 (over three inches in some spots) made whether or not NASCAR would even start the race an open question.
When they did? Things started off sluggish, several drivers struggling to maintain control on wet weather tires. Noah Gragson got the worst of it, crashing in turn 6 before the first lap was even complete. The rookie would cause two of the first three cautions and wipe out four times in that very same corner.
But the struggles of so many still offered plenty of opportunities for redemption. Kyle Busch lost control and drove head on into the tire barriers where he got stuck … and amazingly continued to finish in the top five. On lap 50, William Byron had trouble exiting a turn while Corey LaJoie and Kevin Harvick made contact, resulting in a traffic jam on lap 50 that cost several contenders, including Reddick and Bell.
The incident caused mass confusion in terms of track position, angering those like Kyle Larson who felt NASCAR erred in reorganizing the field.
“I don’t know,” Larson said. “I think maybe now that we’ve had [the street race], we can discuss like what’s the proper way to fix the running order.
“I think they got it half the way right, maybe. But it is what it is, and eventually I was just like, screw it, let’s just go back racing at this point. We’re wasting daylight. It all worked out for us.
“I think had that not happened, maybe I’d run one or two spots better, but Shane also was behind me, so he drove by me and got the lead. I wasn’t going to win.”
Next up, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday (July 9). Coverage begins on USA Network, PRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio at 7 p.m. ET.
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