Race Weekend Central

Stat Sheet: NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race Was One for the Record Books

For the first time in its 75-year history, NASCAR competed at a street course. In a weekend that marked the beginning of a new era in stock car racing’s highest division, both the NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series tackled the winding turns and twists of downtown Chicago.

The weekend was bound to be one of firsts. Denny Hamlin became the first Cup driver to win a pole on a street course, while Christopher Bell became the first Cup driver to win a stage and lead the most laps at a street course. But of course, nothing grabbed as many headlines as the man that took the checkered flag.

A Historic Victory

Shane van Gisbergen – a three-time Australian Supercars champion that’s won 38 races since the start of 2021 – made his Cup debut in Chicago through Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 program.

Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, it became clear from Saturday morning’s (July 1) practice that the Kiwi meant business. He posted the fastest time in practice and qualified third. That speed carried over into the race, as he ran in the top five for the first half until he was relegated back to 18th thanks to a mid-race pit strategy shuffle.

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With the laps ticking down, van Gisbergen picked off the cars one by one ahead of him. He quickly roared to the front of the field by running laps a full second faster than the leaders, and he successfully completed the pass for the win on Justin Haley with five laps to go.

An overtime finish proved to be no problem for van Gisbergen, and he took the checkered flag to win his Cup Series debut to the roar of the crowd.

What happened on Sunday (July 2) was a feat that had never been accomplished since the beginning of NASCAR’s modern era in 1972. Never accomplished, until now.

Van Gisbergen became the first driver since Johnny Rutherford in 1963 to win his Cup debut. Rutherford’s triumph came in a Daytona 500 qualifying duel, which counted for points until 1972. Prior to him, the last driver to win their debut was Marvin Burke in 1951.

Notable about Burke is that his debut win proved to be the only Cup start of his career. Thus, he was the only driver to have a perfect winning percentage in the Cup Series until van Gisbergen joined him on Sunday. Burke will likely stand alone in due time, as van Gisbergen has hinted at wanting to do more races.

Van Gisbergen’s Win by the Numbers

Van Gisbergen led nine of the 78 laps, posted the fastest lap of the race, and led all drivers in average running position (fifth). With Ross Chastain’s win at Nashville Superspeedway the week prior, Trackhouse scored back-to-back wins for the first time in its three-year Cup tenure.

Beyond that, the win was the first for a No. 91 car in Cup since 1953. Tim Flock scored 16 of his 39 victories and the 1952 championship with the number, and van Gisbergen brought it back to victory lane 70 years later.

The victory also brought a familiar face back to victory lane: Darian Grubb. Grubb has served as crew chief for Project 91 and Trackhouse’s No. 91 car, and Sunday marked his 24th win as a Cup crew chief and his first since winning the 2015 Southern 500 with Carl Edwards.

Prior to Project 91, Grubb’s last race as a Cup crew chief came in 2018 with William Byron. Van Gisbergen became the sixth driver to win with Grubb on the box, joining Edwards, Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Tony Stewart.

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An International Reach

There have been several foreign-born drivers to compete in NASCAR’s ranks, and van Gisbergen became the fifth foreign-born driver to win a Cup race, joining Earl Ross in 1974 (Canada), Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007 (Colombia), Marcos Ambrose in 2011 (Australia) and Daniel Suarez in 2022 (Mexico).

Trackhouse has fielded cars for two of the five; looks like Trackhouse co-owner Pitbull is nicknamed Mr. Worldwide for a reason.

Van Gisbergen was also the first Kiwi to compete in Cup, and that made New Zealand the 21st country to be represented in the Cup Series.

Another feat accomplished by van Gisbergen is that he became the first driver born in 1989 to win in the Cup Series. NASCAR has had an abundance of stars born in the early ’80s and the early ’90s, but the late ’80s was a transition phase between the two. Prior to last weekend, the only driver born between 1986 and 1989 to win in Cup was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (1987).

TV Ratings to Die For

There had been a hefty amount of criticism hurled toward the Chicago Street Course since it was announced.

The criticism was only amplified after the Xfinity race was called after 25 laps due to weather. Cole Custer led all 25, and he became the first Xfinity driver since Joey Logano at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2015 to lead every lap of a race. The race was also the shortest Xfinity race (55 miles) on record, and it was the first Xfinity race with zero lead changes since 2014.

Record July rainfall for Chicago was about to delay the Cup race to Monday. However, there was a break in the weather at the last possible moment, and a truncated Cup race was completed by sunset on Sunday.

Despite all the weather difficulties involved, the street course put on a thrilling show with an electric crowd for the Cup race. If those weren’t enough to call Chicago a success, the TV ratings removed all doubt.

The second half of the Cup schedule is always the worst for ratings. The season-opening Daytona 500 dwarfs all the other races in viewership, and NBC has to go up against the NFL in the playoffs.

In a year where there has been concern about a freefall in ratings, this weekend smashed all the expectations.

The most-viewed NASCAR telecast for NBC in nearly six years? Everyone involved in making this race happen is due for a well-deserved victory lap.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include โ€œStat Sheetโ€ and โ€œ4 Burning Questions.โ€ Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the โ€œBringing the Heatโ€ podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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