NASCAR Chicago takeaways: Bowman outlasts favorites, a simmering feud on another wet night

The race ultimately decided by a gutsy decision to not pit and stay out on older wet tires on a damp track

A year ago, Shane Van Gisbergen shocked the NASCAR community by winning in his Cup Series debut on the Streets of Chicago in a race that Alex Bowman just happened to circumstantially finish last.

This time around, despite all the hype, SVG circumstantially finished last and it was Bowman that broke through to break an 80-race winless drought, silenced some critics in the process, and secure his spot in the Cup Series playoffs.

It was not a good day to be one of the expected contenders, as rain assaulted this race for the second year in a row, and completely flipped the dynamic of the Grant Park 165 upside down. Van Gisbergen was crashed out of the race when Chase Briscoe broke traction and spun into the defending winner. Kyle Larson broke traction and drove right into a tire barrier.

Christopher Bell, who dominated this race on pace for the second year in a row, found himself and crew chief Adam Stevens facing a potential no-win strategic scenario before getting crashed trying to make his way through the field.

And for the race itself, NASCAR’s holistic vision of what the event was supposed to look like, was not entirely realized … even if it was closer than the inaugural running.

Perhaps, the third time will be the charm in 2025, as it’s not entirely off the table that NASCAR gives the Windy City festival concept one more go.

Where it was won and lost

On Saturday, the weekend had taken on a SVG vs Kyle Larson vibe, albeit one with poised to feature cameos from Ty Gibbs, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.

That part materialized pretty quickly with Van Gisbergen winning the first stage on a damp Grant Park ahead of Bell, Gibbs, Chase Briscoe, Larson and Bowman. But then came the rain, and a lot of it, precipitating a near two-hour rain delay.

SVG got wiped out when Briscoe crashed into him on Lap 25.

“I just sort of turned in; it looked pretty good and then just got smacked by someone,” van Gisbergen said. “It’s gutting. … We were in the lead for a lot of that race. I felt good taking off in the rain, so that sucks. It’s an unfortunate mistake by him. I’m sure he didn’t mean it. But yeah, when he just clipped me, there wasn’t anything I could do.”

Larson drove firewall deep into the Turn 6 tire barrier on Lap 34.

“I think all of us were getting a little more confident and confident in breaking,” Larson said. “I just went to the brakes a little deeper in each lap. At that time, as soon as I touched the break, I knew I was in trouble.

The rain further complicated matters as NASCAR was forced to shorten the race from 75 laps to whatever number came by 8:20 p.m. locally. It was complicated because the stage break came at a time where a dry line was starting to form on the track.

Some teams in the middle of the pack chose to pit before the stage break, a matter of securing track position, and that forced the leaders to do the same.

The challenge for the likes of Bell, Gibbs and Reddick is that they would all have to start behind drivers like Hand and Bowman, who had nothing to lose in staying out.

Bowman got around Hand on the restart and held off Reddick, due in part, to catching another caution for a Josh Berry crash.

Reddick had a shot, on slicks, to catch Bowman but clipped the Turn 5 wall and it prevented him car from making real speed after that.

“I would have gotten there,” Reddick said. “What would have happened once I got there, who knows. The plaza, Turn 8 to Turn 12, that part of the racetrack hadn’t been my best all weekend. But certainly we would have gotten really, really close, and it seemed like even on the dries kind of out of the driest lane, there was still more braking potential, just more grip potential there at the very end, even if you were kind of in some of the damp track.

“I think I would have gotten there. He would have fought really hard. But unfortunately we’ll never know.”

For Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens, there was never a consideration of staying out on the wet weather tires.

“We had to jump it because everybody could have come at the stage and you’d be behind them all,” Stevens said. “So we saw a bunch of them pit with three to go right. And that kind of forced our hand with two to go being the leader.

“We really felt like you were going to have to have slicks to win the race. The two things that hurt us were that caution, that that cut down laps, green flag laps for us to run. And obviously if the whole race runs under caution, which was a possibility, then you’re not going to win. And if it runs green, we’re probably going to win.

“Even if we got through that little skirmish there without wrecking our suspension, we were clearly ahead of (Reddick) and (Gibbs) so we needed two things to go wrong to not win and they both went wrong.”

Conversely, Bowman’s crew chief, Blake Harris had way more to gain in staying out than whatever points they might have lost if it didn’t go well.

“At the end there once I knew I had his confidence of understanding like ‘hey, man, we’re going to have to go to the back and (Bell) is here, and how many cars are you going to pass in eight, nine laps,’ and he was like, ‘man, that’s what we’ve got to do because I’m smoked in here,’ but he knew where his tires were at.

“He knew the pace that he was running and I kind of tried to lay out what I was seeing and what I thought was going to happen, and really especially with that caution — even without that caution, I knew we were going to have three laps maybe before those guys would really get some pace up on us if it strung out.

“So that really only left three, four laps of potential green based on the time limit. Really, yeah, it was an easy decision. If he thought his stuff was smoked, we probably had to have a conversation about where we were going to be, but all those buffer cars just played out perfect, and I think his confidence of knowing he could go get (Joey Hand) and get some space put on him, that was all of it, because I think it was going to be down to the last two or three corners if (Reddick) hadn’t gotten in the fence.

“We needed every bit of it, every straightaway that he had, pull over cooling the tires as he’s at speed trying to keep those things to temp. I don’t know that he could have executed any better.”

Bubba and Bowman

Bowman spun Bubba Wallace on Lap 25, roughly at the same time that Briscoe wiped out Van Gisbergen, and despite the best efforts from the former, the latter next let it go.

Wallace door slammed Bowman after the race, after Bowman dropped his window net, and NASCAR said it would investigate that incident in determining if punitive actions would be necessary.

Bowman said he doesn’t blame Wallace for being angry.

“Yeah, I’d do that, too,” Bowman said. “I ruined his day. We had a really — the restart was chaotic. I just made every wrong decision I possibly could, and I was fighting with my windshield wiper switch trying to get the thing working and I couldn’t get it working and I was focused on that, missed the corner and cleaned him out. I locked all four tires up and slid right into him. I just messed up and absolutely ruined his day.

“I’m pretty hard on myself when I make mistakes like that, and I’ve been embarrassed about it since it happened.”

Bowman even tried to make it right with Wallace during the rain delay after it happened.

“The rain delay was just a lot of me sitting there being embarrassed and being mad at myself,” Bowman said.”He has every right to be mad; I’d be mad, too. I tried to call him during the rain delay and I shot him a text. Nothing I can do to make it better, and I’m sure us winning probably only makes it worse.”

Bowman says he doesn’t want NASCAR to penalize Wallace.

“No, he barely hit me,” Wallace said. “It was fine, and it was plenty deserved.”

What next?

Unlike last year, NASCAR and the City of Chicago got the concerts and Xfinity Series race in but the Cup Series race was once again besieged by torrential rainfall.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said he was ‘thrilled to be here to watch and cheer you on.’

“NASCAR is … good for our local businesses, especially our hospitality industry, which of course is being supported by the fans and all those visiting our amazing city,” Johnson said during the pre-race drivers meeting.

“Know that all the challenges and twists you experience downtown, you’re not the only ones who experience those challenges and twists — try being the mayor of the City of Chicago,” Johnson said. “And try to do it without crashing. … Don’t tear my city up.”

Prior to the weekend, NASCAR’s Ben Kennedy said ‘it’s likely we’re back in Chicago next year’ too although either party could cancel the third year as late as six months before the Independence Day Weekend event.

Long term, the point of this event is to showcase to potential future host cities what a combined NASCAR race and music festival could offer as a commercial for a downtown environment and also the economic impact such an event could provide.

Through two attempts, NASCAR has almost painted that full picture, and the deal with The Windy City was always three years with built-in opt outs. The rain the past two years has been awfully unfortunate but there’s also a proof of concept that appears to have a lot of merit for NASCAR and other cities to explore in the years to come as well.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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