NASCAR takes to the streets in Chicago for groundbreaking new race

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JUNE 02: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) (Editors note: This image was computer generated in-game) Cars race during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at virtual Chicago Street Course on June 02, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

There’s no advantage heading in, and experience counts for nothing.

Sunday’s Chicago Street Race (5:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a first for the NASCAR Cup Series. The track itself has only just been constructed and no driver has ever turned a lap outside of the virtual world.

The 2.2-mile, 12-turn circuit is a wholly unique challenge on the schedule.

“It’s going to be new, it’s totally different,” last weeks winner at Nashville Ross Chastain said. “It’s a way to move the needle with our sport.”

“Yes, I want points and I want to win,” he added, “but I’m more looking at it from the big picture of us as a whole and if it elevates all of us, it’ll pay off for me in the long run.”

“Honestly, any time you get to be a part of something new and different, it’s really exciting,” added Ryan Preece. “We got to do the same thing with North Wilkesboro earlier this season and its return to the schedule. NASCAR is trying new things and they’re making an effort to draw in new fans and change up the schedule and I appreciate that.”

As for what to expect in the race, there’s no precedent. Cole Custer expects that some of the road course chaos that made headlines at the Circuit of The Americas will be on full display.

“I truthfully have no idea,” Custer said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of attrition on the restarts at road course races this year and with the NextGen car, so I’d expect some of that. Maybe there will be some guys that take it easy, but I would guess you’ll have some ruffled feathers at some point and that could lead to excitement.”

It will definitely be different than anything else on the schedule, though, according to Aric Almirola.

“The way the car handles and drives across the crown in the road and the bumps and uneven surfaces are all going to play a role in making this a challenging race for all of us,” he said.

“It’s something we have never had to deal with. We race on tracks that are purposefully built for racecars and they have a continuous grade of banking. We’re going to have to attack the track, and the condition of the car is so much different than we’re used to.”

A few drivers do have some experience on other street courses, though, including a host of new and part-time drivers joining the field for Chicago too. Jenson Button, Andy Lally, and Shane van Gisbergen headline that list.

Of the three, Gisbergen has never competed in NASCAR before. The three-time Australian Supercars champion will be driving the No. 91 Trackhouse Racing entry as part of the team’s PROJECT91 program.

“Shane is a very nice guy and a heck of a race car driver,” said Trackhouse driver Daniel Suarez. “He was with us in Nashville last weekend. He has a lot to learn, but he is very talented. He is going to spend a lot of time on the simulator this week. He has more experience on street courses than probably the entire starting field of Sunday’s race.”

One notable part-timer missing from that list is Jimmie Johnson, who has withdrawn from the race after a family tragedy.

But two full-time drivers with street course experience are AJ Allmendinger and Michael McDowell.

“Street racing is some of the most fun I’ve had racing in my life, so I’m looking forward to getting to Chicago and trying it out in a Cup car,” Allmendinger said.

“I think going to a new course that nobody has any experience on—tricky and challenging—it’s going to play into the hands of guys that have done races like this, and that adapt quickly,” said McDowell. “We’re talking about the best drivers in the world, so they’re going to figure it out really fast.”

“I don’t think I have an ‘advantage.’ I just feel like my comfort level is a bit higher than the majority of the guys that haven’t seen a street course before. We think about this race as a race we need to go and win to get into the Playoffs. So that’s what we’re focused on.”

Xfinity Series drivers take on the unknown in Chicago

Chicago is equally new for the Xfinity Series heading into Saturday’s The Loop 121 (5 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

One other unusual thing: there will be no Cup drivers to steal the thunder. NASCAR doesn’t allow drivers from its premier series to moonlight in inaugural events like this in an effort to level the playing field.

So it’ll have to be a series regular, or maybe someone from the outside like Trackhouse owner Justin Marks who’ll be driving for Kaulig Racing.

But for the rest of the field, the only way to experience the track has been in the simulator.

“It’s all sim sessions at this point,” said Cole Custer. “No one has raced this course before, so we really won’t know what to expect until we hit the track for practice on Saturday.”

“The good news is that we’re all on an equal playing field,” he added. It’s such an unknown on the schedule, but I’m excited for the challenge.”

Custer has a strong run in the points with nine-straight top-ten finishes, enough for fourth in the points.

“I’m happy with where we are as a team at this point in the season,” Custer said. We’ve got our win to get us into the Playoffs, so now we can just focus on getting our car faster so we can make that run for the championship.”

His teammate Riley Herbst is dangerously close to the Playoff cutline in ninth, but he broke through a midseason slump with a second-place finish last week at Nashville following a crew chief swap.

“I’m hoping that the bad luck is behind us, but I’m excited for what’s to come,” Herbst said. “We had a great first race with our new crew chief, Davin Restivo, and I think it’ll only get better as we continue to work on our communication. He promised fast racecars and that’s just what he brought to Nashville. I’m excited to work with him as we head into these summer races.”

A festival experience, on and off the track

The weekend doesn’t just include great and groundbreaking racing action. The Chainsmokers and Miranda Lambert will be joined by The Black Crowes and Charley Crockett for music performances on the circuit grounds for extra weekend entertainment.

All of it will come together in a festival experience all weekend with displays around the circuit.

“Whether you’re a long-time NASCAR fan or a first-time racegoer, this weekend is going to be the can’t-miss event of the summer,” said Julie Giese, Chicago Street Race President.

“With the racing action, concerts, driver appearances, NASCAR Experience activations, and our free entertainment in Butler Field that is open to the public – NASCAR is all about putting fans close to the action in a way that no other sport can, and to do it in Chicago during the best time of the year is going to make this weekend a true bucket-list sporting event.”

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Grant Park 220
The Place: Chicago Street Race
The Date: Sunday, July 2
The Time: 5:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,565,807
TV: NBC, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 220 miles (100 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 45), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 100)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: The Loop 121
The Place: Chicago Street Race
The Date: Saturday, July 1
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,627,771
TV: USA, 4:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 121 miles (55 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 15),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 30), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 55)

Owen Johnson