NASCAR, race teams all pleased with race control decisions during rainy Chicago race

Lessons were learned from the inaugural running of the race at Grant Park

Both NASCAR officials and the teams that compete in the Cup Series expressed positivity over how race control managed the weather, specifically the resulting tire change options and the decision to shorten the race for impending darkness, on Sunday in Downtown Chicago.

Lessons were clearly learned from what happened in the inaugural running of the Cup Series street race — an event marred by historic flooding and NASCAR calling both races short without any language in the rule book.

Since then, NASCAR has created rules to allow the shortening of a race due to factors of its control, but also provided a mechanism to communicate to teams in advance what those options look like so strategies can be formed around them.

That’s what happened on Sunday with the first implementation of NASCAR rule book sections

Early in the race, after a series of rain delays, NASCAR notified the teams that it could race no later than 8:20 p.m. local time. As NASCAR reached that point, with a little less than half the advertised distance left, the Grant Park 165 became a timed race instead.

Everyone built the strategic decisions around that known end point, which was a departure from last year when NASCAR made the audible and burned half the field who anticipated the race going longer. The most prominent crew chief burned that night was Adam Stevens of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20, who heaped praise on the sanctioning body for how it handled the 2024 race.

“Honestly, it was very clear and it worked very well. I think they hit the time about right; you could argue a minute or two one way or the other. But as far as the procedure to go for all the competitors to know, it was fantastic,” Stevens said.

He laughed, knowing that it would have won Christopher Bell the race last year.

“I wish we would have had it last year, but we didn’t,” Stevens said. “We had to learn the hard way as a series and as a sport and they got it right. And I think they’ll continue to get it right going forward.”

Cup director proud of the result

Race control had its figurative hands full all day.

The race began with a shower that was light enough to leave several teams wanting to begin the race on dry slick tires but with most of the field wanting the wet weather treads.

NASCAR’s policy permits a reconnaissance lap so teams can make their opening lap tire decisions with confidence.

“Right off the bat we had to call an audible based on the weather,” Sawyer said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday. “We had all the intention to start the race on dry conditions and dry tires. Even when it started sprinkling there, we rolled them off, let them make a recon lap to see what the facility looks like and brought them back down per the rule book to give them the opportunity to change tires.

“It would have been there option, but with the clip the rain was coming down, we figured we better go ahead and put them on wets now and not potentially have issues with hydroplaning and having cars not be able to get back to pit road.

“So, we called the audible to put them on wets and drove around, let them get a visual of what they would be up against, and gave them the option to change.”

Seven cars actually started the race on slicks with the rest of the field on wet weather treads.

“That’s the way it unfolded,” Sawyer said. “Once we dropped the green flag, we’re out of the tire business on road courses and felt the teams made really good decisions. They had strategy.”

The end of the race, on the clock, came down to Alex Bowman on used up wet weather treads defending against Tyler Reddick on dry slicks on a surface that was drying but still damp.

“Obviously, the winning car was on wets and the car that was coming at a really high rate of speed was on dry,” Sawyer said. “That was really interesting there at the end.”

But it was the decision to very early in the race communicate to teams that 8:20 was the maximum cut-off point and then calling for a timed race approaching that market that drew the most praise from teams.

It was a stark contrast from 2023 where teams felt blinded by every decision, in both the Cup and Xfinity Series races.

“If you look back a year, we had a similar situation at Chicago, we had to make an in-race call that we weren’t going to reach the advertised distance,” Sawyer said. “After collaboration with the industry we put language in the rulebook in the offseason that gave us the ability for facilities like Chicago or this week at Pocono or Indianapolis or Michigan that doesn’t have lights to look at sunset.

“And we can decide on a pre-determined time, which is what we did, And then we communicated that to the industry, the teams that we would give them that time prior to starting the second stage. So, at the end of the first stage, we make an announcement that we will race till X.

“All of that timeline and the reason we don’t do that prior to the race starting or even at 12:00 or Sunday morning was to give us all the opportunity to look at how the day unfolds, give us the longest runway possible to make the best decision to get the most laps completed that we could if we were going to run into a delay and then again, once we got to the end of the first stage, it was pretty evident to us it was going to be difficult to get to Lap 75.

“Looking at the night before, having about an 8:30 sunset, we felt like we were comfortable and right on the edge with still having enough sunlight to go to 8:20 and that’s where we landed on it.  … All the communication we had with the teams after the race was very positive with how that was communicated and how we executed.”

Race winning crew chief Blake Harris, who oversees Alex Bowman and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team, was very complimentary of everything race control did on Sunday.

“I think that them giving us a heads up on (8:20 was) a huge deal,” Harris said. “The ability to choose the tires, right, like we go immediately wet, you choose when it’s dry. I know it probably didn’t make Jeff real comfortable here, as he had mentioned, on the choices we made. But yeah, I think just putting it in our hands lets us put some strategy out there.

“I think from where I stand, it’s great to have a few different ways to go about it.”

Chris Gayle, who crew chiefs the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 for Ty Gibbs, said NASCAR addressed every concern from last year’s race.

“100 percent. 100 percent,” Gayle said. “We at least knew, and we were in back and forth contact, and when that second shower came in, we were slacking them and asking ‘if it rains again, are we stopping again?’

This is right before the second stage break, which NASCAR ran out to the end.

“We were so close on fuel, that I would have to make the decision for what it means if I had to then stay out the rest of the race,” Gayle said, about whether to pit for fuel.

“I knew if they delayed it another 20 minutes, we weren’t going to make it to the end. They have to tell us that before they open pit road or they put everyone at a disadvantage and NASCAR was really up front about everything they were going to do. I have nothing negative to say about anything that played out.”

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

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