NASCAR overcomes historic storm with historic race and winner in Chicago


CHICAGO — Not too far away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, NASCAR officials hit a figurative home run when it came to the things they could control over the weekend with the inaugural Cup Series street race at Grant Park.

What the league couldn’t control was the weather.

There was about a 24-hour period where this entire weekend looked like it was destined to be a washout, both figuratively and then literally, before a genuinely compelling stock car race with a feel-good winner delivered something best articulated as a walk-off victory for the industry.

Sure, it’s a major disappointment that the resumption of the Xfinity Series race was called-off two laps short of the distance that rules technically require for an official race. It’s an even larger disappointment for attendees of the festival atmosphere portion of the weekend that literally every concert, including the Chainsmokers, was either rained out or canceled due to the threat of lightning.

NASCAR and the City of Chicago were united in a mission to serve existing fans, while also piquing the interest of potential future enthusiasts, while tying it all together in something that resembled on paper like Lollapalooza with race cars.

The concept, so meticulously detailed, never got a chance to shine as intended due to lightning in the area on Saturday night that turned into a deluge from midnight to the eventual green flag on Sunday. It was a historic storm for a historic occasion, most areas receiving at least four inches of rain, and others taking on seven.

The monthly average precipitation in July for Chicago is 4.03” and the city received all of it and then some over a span of 12 hours. It threatened to ruin everything, and the case could be made that it might have ruined most of the things, but the main event on Sunday delivered just enough to generate some much-needed goodwill.

The Grant Park 220, ultimately shortened to 75 laps from the scheduled 100, proved to be an objectively thrilling masterclass of stock car purity and door-to-door action across a surface that was perpetually changing as drier conditions returned to the area.

Shane van Gisbergen emerges to win NASCAR debut

grant park 220

As the sun began to set, it was a 34-year-old three-time Australian Supercars champion in Shane Van Gisbergen, who drove to Victory Lane in literally his first appearance at the highest level of North American motorsports.

He became a historic winner, of a historic race, who responded to a historic storm that threatened to unravel everything.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” van Gisbergen said. “What an amazing day.”

It’s amazing because outsiders don’t simply come into NASCAR, much less the premier Cup Series, and win in their first chance behind the wheel. Fellow Supercars legend Marcos Ambrose and Formula 1/IndyCar legend Juan Pablo Montoya won two races each, but it took years for them to reach that level.

Van Gisbergen is immediately 1-1, or batting 1.000, to continue the Wrigley Field baseball analogy.

It made some of his fellow competitors, literally the best at this discipline, question their own worth at least when it comes to road and street course racing in their own cars.

“I don’t want to speak for everybody else, but he made me look bad, and I kind of think the rest of us, too,” said Chase Elliott. “Looking forward to going to work and trying to be better.”

That’s the 2020 Cup Series champion.

“He put on a show and it was cool to see, and I think when a guy like that can come in and kick your ass at your own game, it shows that we all have room to improve,” said Kyle Larson.

“I’m curious what he thinks about us. He obviously passed a lot of us, so I’m curious if he thinks we all suck or if we could actually like compete, if we weren’t really that bad.”

 That’s the 2021 Cup Series champion.

Van Gisbergen, for his part, recognizes that this was the best possible scenario for him to have any chance to fend off the elite of the NASCAR Cup Series.

“I’m sure if it were an oval, it would go the other way around,” Van Gisbergen said. “This is my bread and butter, the street circuits, it’s about half of our schedule and I’m comfortable with the walls.”

His team owner, Justin Marks, thought this was the perfect place to employ ‘SVG’ too. The No. 91 he drove in Chicago, called Project91, is a part-time entry conceived as a car for champions from other international disciplines to sample NASCAR.

Kimi Räikkönen, the 2007 Formula 1 champion drove the car in its first two races the past two years, but Shane van Gisbergen was always Marks’ number one draft pick when conceiving the project.

“The Supercars Series in Australia was something that was really on my radar really from the get-go in Project91,” Marks said. “Shane was the guy. He was like the first person and the only person really that I thought of, so I reached out right away, and I said, I’m not offering you a ride yet, but I’m working on it.

“If I can get to a place where I can call you and make the official offer, then I will, and that was able to happen this spring.”

And now, just months later, they’re in Victory Lane together in Downtown Chicago.

The future in Chicago and on city streets

NASCAR: Grant Park 220

So, what now?

This obviously wasn’t a perfect weekend for NASCAR, nor was it even a complete proof of concept for what this could mean for the future of the sport, domestically or abroad. At the same time, NASCAR never had a chance to show off what it had worked on either.

The Chainsmokers concert on Saturday was an important component of this event, holistically, as was Sunday’s concert headlined by Miranda Lambert and the Black Crowes. None of these happened due to the weather, but the racing absolutely delivered, and NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell and SVP of Racing Strategy Ben Kennedy are proud of that.

“We can take the Cup Series anywhere we want,” O’Donnell said. “The race we put on today would sell and be embraced gloabally.”

This event was largely the brainchild of Kennedy, a former driver and the grandson of league founder Bill France Sr.

“Obviously we’re going to have a very deep dive postmortem after this event,” Kennedy said. “A lot of surveys will go out collecting a lot of feedback. Of course, there were a lot of things that went according to plan; there were some things that didn’t go according to plan obviously with the weather.

“We’re going to have a lot of takeaways from this weekend, which I think will be really good, but from what I’ve seen so far, certainly from the fans and from a lot of folks in the industry has been positive.”

The sporting portion absolutely worked.

As for any future in Chicago, NASCAR reached a deal to run this event with former mayor Lori Lightfood and her successor, Brandon Johnson campaigned as an opponent of the event. At the same time, Johnson attended the race on Sunday, spoke at the drivers meeting and met with NASCAR officials throughout the week.

Maybe NASCAR and Chicago give each other a second chance to get a full event in next year, maybe not. But NASCAR did show the framework of a concept that could be taken to any market in the United States and maybe some outside of it too.

“What’s great about this is NASCAR has huge interest globally right now,” O’Donnell said. “We saw it in Garage 56. Ben and I had a number of meetings with a number of different countries and a number of different continents wanting races.

“It’s a good problem to have for us, but we want to do what’s right for our fans, take the product to where we think it’s going to resonate. To us, this was perfect. Applaud Ben for having the vision on this. We’re more of Chicago Bears type fan base, and I think we delivered that today, and the fans that showed up hopefully felt that with us, as well. So we’ve got to balance that as to where we go next.”

While it still remains an open question if NASCAR will return to the Windy City, it sounds like Van Gisbergen is only at the remarkable beginning of what could eventually become a longer stay in the Cup Series.

“I miss racing in the states,” Van Gisbergen said. “Like, I’ve done (the Rolex 24 at Daytona) four or five times now. The way the racing (culture) here is very enjoyable. Even doing the media stuff, which I usually hate, everyone here is nice and they ask good questions.

“It’s so enjoyable how the races are run. Like, watching qualifying at Nashville last week, I couldn’t believe how relaxed everyone was but then they flip the switch for the race. The intensity turns up.

“Next year, I’m committed to Supercars. I still love Supercars. I hope it goes well there (but) in ’25, who knows?”

Who knows was the theme of the night when it comes to the future following a truly historic weekend in the Windy City.

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