Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Did Chicago Prove the Street Race Has a Home in NASCAR?

The Grant Park 220 and The Loop 121 at the Chicago street course this weekend were not without their challenges. Despite weather delays brought about by lightning and torrential downpours, coupled with desires by some city leaders to thwart the event, it produced an iconic and historic moment with Shane van Gisbergen winning in his first-ever start for the first-ever street race in the Windy City.

If social media reaction was any indication, the race exceeded virtually anyone’s expectations and sparked discussion as to how many more street races NASCAR can pack the schedule with. The first order of business, however, is the existing contract for another Chicago street course race in 2024. Should Chicago and NASCAR push to keep the date in place, or has running there already run its course?

This week, Mark Kristl and Wyatt Watson agree to disagree in a special 2-Headed Monster.

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Holding A Pretty Wheel: Street Racing Should Be on a NASCAR Schedule - But Don't Overdo It

Running of the Bulls: Run-It-Back in 2024

Coming into this weekend, I had my doubts about how the Chicago Street Course would go down, what the turnout would look like and how entertaining the track product would be. I also had my complaints surrounding why the NASCAR Cup Series was scrapping Road America so early only after two years and one race with the Next Gen car. Those initial thoughts about NASCAR going to the streets of Chicago were some of the most skeptical I’ve held in recent memory.

To put it bluntly, those doubts have been quelled for good. I’m officially sold on NASCAR street racing.

The Cup Series drivers made such an amazing spectacle out of this weekend given the limits and weather that plagued them from the start. Facing the backlash that resulted from the unprecedented action of ending the NASCAR Xfinity Series race early, NASCAR officials played the Cup Series situation they were faced with smartly. They chose to start despite tenuous weather conditions, a move that paid off brilliantly with one of the most competitive races of the year.

The only issue I saw with how NASCAR handled the race was that they should have done what a majority of other racing leagues do: set a clock to finish a race fighting darkness versus spontaneously shortening the event and affecting the strategy of other drivers. (Keep in mind they still went on to run overtime toward the end, re-lengthening a race that was already shortened).

Ironically, the winner of stages one and two, Christopher Bell, has seen this episode before. It had to have felt like New Hampshire Motor Speedway 2021 all over again, where he ran out of time pursuing Aric Almirola at the end due to ensuing darkness. This time, however, NASCAR shortened the length from 100 laps to 75, creating a strategic disadvantage for him, as well as eventual winner van Gisbergen.

Despite the disadvantage for most of the dominant drivers down the stretch, I have to admit, the drama and excitement for the last half of the race was exhilarating.

The traffic jam caused by the Corey LaJoie, Kevin Harvick and William Byron incident in turn 11 created a roar of energy to those watching, those in attendance and noticeably through NBC Sports’ broadcast. Justin Haley and Austin Dillon fighting for the lead during the green flag kept me on the edge of my seat, and even after Dillon wrecked, Chase Elliott looming behind, knowing what he’s capable of on road courses, captured my attention.

Additionally, before going just over his limit into the tire barrier, my eye was also on Tyler Reddick, one of the best on road courses right now, who was making a hard charge to the front along with van Gisbergen. The fresh tires of Reddick, Kyle Larson and van Gisbergen against the old tires and track position of Haley, Dillon and Elliott had specators, fans at home, and my own eyes glued to every second of a thrilling finish down the stretch.

The ratings backed that up, too; Chicago’s street course event was the most watched on NBC since 2017, the second most popular NASCAR race of the year (behind the Daytona 500) and came within striking distance of Indy 500 viewership. Fans packed the Chicago street course most of the weekend, bracing weather conditions that included the most rain to fall in one day in the city’s metropolitan area since 1982.

To top it all off, the craftiness that was displayed by van Gisbergen to drive all the way through the Cup field to take the lead with five laps to go was absolutely breathtaking. The unprecedented accomplishment of achieving victory in his first career start is something no one could’ve ever seen coming. A 60-year NASCAR record of first start, first win being shattered was unbelievable, and it never would have happened if the Chicago street course wasn’t scheduled on the series calendar. (Credit goes, too, to Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing for embarking on Project 91 to attract international drivers into the sport).

In just about every inch of detail racing-wise, everything went as perfectly with the track as it could have for the Chicago street course, and I am looking forward to seeing it again next year. One can only hope both the city and sanctioning body are able to realize the potential this race has and honor the existing contract for 2024.

In fact, Chicago was so successful, it makes me ask this question: should we stop at just Chicago? Where will NASCAR go next with this idea in the future? But as we ponder potential expansion on this track type, we shouldn’t let go of a successful location right where street courses for the sport began anew. – Wyatt Watson

Go To a City that Wants NASCAR

Admittedly, I was skeptical about the Chicago street course event. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, the local news, unfortunately, focuses too often on the many problems in the Windy City, including those with crime; the city is currently dealing with one of its highest homicide rates since the 1990s. Mother Nature did not do much to assuage my skepticism for much of Sunday (July 2).

But when the Cup Series field took to the streets for the race, my doubts about whether NASCAR could excel at street course racing were erased. Instead, a foreigner in van Gisbergen debuted his way into victory lane. Haley, who has one career Cup win, used some strategy to run up front, and despite older tires, he finished second. Kyle Busch, who brought out the first caution when his No. 8 Chevrolet slid into the tire barrier, came back to finish fifth.

Furthermore, ratings-wise, the event was a home run.

However, due to its contract with Chicago, NASCAR ought to street race in another city, i.e. one that actually wants it.

The unkind weather situation forced NASCAR to make an unprecedented decision in its Xfinity Series event: end a race before both the halfway point and the end of stage two.

Yes, series officials opted to end the NXS race prematurely, two laps before the halfway point. When the decision was made, NASCAR chose some curious wording in the historic statement.

“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,” NASCAR stated. “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.”

So, there was an option to return on Monday, but NASCAR chose not to do so.
Arguably, Chicago understandably wants its city streets open for normal operations on the Monday, July 3 workday.

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It appears suspect, though, to say the least that the contingency plan was not enacted, especially given the fans did not receive their full race weekend experience. Multiple concerts were canceled, including The Chainsmokers and Miranda Lambert, robbing them of additional experiences promised. That’s along with the NXS race ending prematurely and the Cup event cut short by 25 laps due to darkness.

OK, I know NASCAR cannot control the weather. Beset with heavy downpours over the weekend but a dry Monday, NASCAR could have completed the full Xfinity distance to give fans a better bang for their buck.

Instead, the statement sounds like Chicago wanted NASCAR to be gone after Sunday. The fact the city wasn’t sharing in the profits much surely didn’t help the decision, people complaining about an inexpensive Grant Park lease granted to the sport in the midst of a $100 million injection into the local economy.

So, it seemed, Chicago wanted NASCAR… but only for a certain amount of time and with regret over a contract a new political regime may have felt it shouldn’t have signed.

Why should NASCAR want to return somewhere with so many contingencies?

It shouldn’t.

As for the new fans the sport made over the weekend, there are other racetracks within a three-four range of Chicago, such as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, the Milwaukee Mile, Road America and Iowa Speedway – should NASCAR ever return there.

Therefore, NASCAR should go street course racing elsewhere.

Where, though?

I’d advocate for Denver. The Mile High City elevation would add a unique element to the racing, the mountainous backdrop would be a jaw-dropping aesthetic and NASCAR could continue to serve the west, an area that has shown via attendance at Portland International Speedway has ample race fans.

A mid-afternoon start, like the intended start time for the Chicago event, would also be fortuitous for the fans there. A 5:30 p.m. ET start would be 3:30 local time, allowing fans to attend the Sunday race without leaving the racetrack too late, thereby allowing them to go to work on Monday.

Denver would be an excellent choice for a NASCAR street course event, though there are plenty of other interesting candidates. Which city isn’t one of those? The one that only wanted NASCAR for a brief weekend: Chicago. – Mark Kristl

About the author

Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.

Wyatt Watson has been an avid fan of NASCAR since 2007 at the age of 8. He joined Frontstretch in February 2023 after serving in the United States Navy for five years as an Electronic Technician Navigation working on submarines. Wyatt writes breaking NASCAR news and contributes to columns such as Friday Faceoff and 2-Headed Monster. Wyatt also contributes to Frontstretch's social media and serves as an at-track reporter.

Wyatt Watson can be found on Twitter @WyattGametime

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Shayne

Bell started 4th with a fast car. He was able to take the lead for 2 stages. A 12th place restart and he couldn’t pass anyone and finished 18th. Bell wasn’t going to win the race.

SVG rode behind the leaders and I believe he was capable of taking the lead any time he felt like it. SVG restarted in 18th and drove through half the field.

Why are we talking about Christopher Bell?

I’m sure NA$CAR did well money wise. I doubt NA$CAR cares if they’re invited back next year.

DoninAjax

I don’t think Bell’s trips into the barriers helped his handling very much but he’s the one who was driving.

SVG made up about 5 seconds on the leader in about three laps near the end of the event and seemed to be just biding his time to get the lead.

I wonder what he will say to his buddies back home about the greatest stock car drivers in the world. Maybe he can bring some Super Cars to the US to show what real “race” cars look and drive like.

Kevin in SoCal

I think it would be awesome to do a double-header with Indy Car at the Grand Prix of Long Beach next year. That can replace the Fontana track.

Thunder

If they want to do more they better make sure they select a place with nice wide avenues and a simple layout like Chicago. They had room to really race and it showed. Put them on some of the street courses that Indy runs and it will not be a good show.

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