Suffice it to say that no one will soon forget NASCAR’s first weekend of street racing in Chicago. In one of the most highly anticipated races of the season, NASCAR Cup Series drivers battled a brand-new course and torrential rains to bring stock car racing directly to the backyard of Chicago’s fans. The race ended with a shocking twist as Shane van Gisbergen, a star from Australia’s V8 Supercar Series, bested the top stock car racers of North America to win in his first ever NASCAR race.
Now that the event has concluded, I’m not sure what surprises me more – van Gisbergen winning or that NASCAR’s plan to hold a race in downtown Chicago actually worked. This past weekend was clearly a test to see if street racing could be a viable path forward for the sanctioning body. But with an unexpected winner and a course layout that provided plenty of entertainment, this past weekend could have far-reaching implications for NASCAR.
To start, it’s almost unbelievable that van Gisbergen managed to win in his first try. That is something that simply does not happen in the modern Cup Series. To find the last driver who did it, you must go all the way back to 1963 when Johnny Rutherford won at Daytona International Speedway. In that case, Rutherford won a Daytona 500 qualifying race back when those counted as regular season events. That victory wound up as the only NASCAR win of Rutherford’s career. He went on to have a much longer and more decorated champ car career, winning three Indianapolis 500s and the 1980 CART championship.
Everyone else who won a Cup race in their first try did so in NASCAR’s formative years. The most recent winner from that group is west coast racer Marvin Burke, who famously won the only Cup Series event he ever started. Burke’s victory came at Oakland Stadium in 1951 on a day when most of NASCAR’s regulars were running another race at Martinsville Speedway.
Looking at the historical context, van Gisbergen’s win becomes even more impressive. Unlike Rutherford and Burke, who won races where the field was split, van Gisbergen had all of NASCAR’s top competitors racing with him on the streets of Chicago. In addition, his experience in racing comes from piloting right-hand drive touring cars. The current Next Gen car was partially inspired by the cars van Gisbergen regularly drives, but it is still not a one-for-one comparison. Many of the drivers he was up against in Sunday’s race have spent practically their whole lives racing stock cars. Several have competed in the Cup Series for close to 20 years. Yet in the end, street racing experience mattered more than anything else that NASCAR’s regulars brought to the table.
Furthermore, van Gisbergen did not simply back into a win. He had to fight hard to get back to the lead after a poorly timed decision from NASCAR worked against him. Following a caution on lap 41, several drivers running mid-pack and deeper in the field made a pit stop. These drivers were gambling that the race would be called early due to darkness, although NASCAR had made no such official determination. The race went green, but another caution came out a few laps later when Alex Bowman stalled on the track. It was during this caution that NASCAR announced that the race, originally scheduled for 100 laps, would end at lap 75 due to darkness.
NASCAR’s decision to shorten the race was understandable, but the timing of the decision was completely inappropriate. If the sanctioning body was planning to shorten the race, that announcement should have happened before everyone made their final pit stop. Instead, NASCAR gave the drivers who pitted under the lap 41 caution a free pass to the front of the field. The front runners, van Gisbergen included, had to pit under the later caution and got stuck back in the pack behind the drivers who had already pitted.
The timing of NASCAR’s decision to shorten the race had an enormous impact on the final finishing order. The New Zealander was still able to drive through the field and to the lead in the closing laps, yet drivers like Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell, both of whom could have challenged for the win, got caught up in accidents trying to get through the field. It wasn’t a case where Reddick and Bell had bad strategy. NASCAR unexpectedly changed the length of the race and it put them at a major disadvantage. That decision will not, and should not, sit well with the teams who waited to pit.
Yet aside from one moment of poor officiating, it seems that street racing can be a path forward for NASCAR. Even an exceptionally rainy weekend did not dampen the enthusiasm of the fans who came to watch the race. In fact, the wet track conditions actually worked in NASCAR’s favor, adding a curveball to an already difficult situation. Managing the rain, along with the strategy for when to switch to slick tires, saved the race from being a parade where passing was impossible. It wasn’t the best race of 2023, but it was engaging, tested the drivers and kept fans wondering what would happen next.
Furthermore, NASCAR may have found a new way to attract stars from other disciplines of motorsports. Stock cars on the streets of Chicago were the ultimate equalizer, a perfect opportunity for a ringer to defeat the regulars. You can bet that after proving the Project 91 car is capable of winning, Justin Marks’ phone is going to be ringing off the hook with drivers who want to give NASCAR a try. Hopefully, he and Trackhouse Racing can accommodate all of them. This race may have started out as a way to introduce new fans to the sport, but it feels like NASCAR may have stumbled on a way to bring new drivers to the sport too.
Perhaps the best comparison for this past weekend is when NASCAR tried racing on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time in 2021. In both cases, the weather was lousy, and the execution of the race was a little sloppy. But I would argue that both of those race weekends were overall positives for the sport. After years of a frustratingly stagnant schedule, it was so nice, and so much fun, to see NASCAR do something different. Just like Bristol’s dirt race, they should limit it to once a year to keep it fresh, but street racing should have a future in NASCAR.
Trackhouse and van Gisbergen deserve all the credit in the world for pulling off a seemingly impossible victory. Yet after a year of questions, weeks of concern, and a weekend full of terrible weather, NASCAR scored a big victory of its own in Chicago.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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