Mopping up after NASCAR weekend in Chicago

We tap the brakes to look back on a historic race on downtown streets.

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Shane van Gisbergen gives a thumbs up in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course.

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Moments after NASCAR’s daring adventure was over — a soggy day in downtown Chicago rescued by a compelling Cup Series race — they were all thinking big.

Shane van Gisbergen pondered a move from Australia’s Supercars to a regular NASCAR ride. Justin Marks contemplated the promising future of Project 91. Steve O’Donnell talked about holding a NASCAR event on another continent.

“I think we’re all confident at NASCAR that we could take the Cup Series anywhere we want,” said O’Donnell, who became the chief operating officer of NASCAR in March 2022.

O’Donnell and Ben Kennedy, the 31-year-old great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France and a key engine behind the sport’s evolving schedule, were buoyed by Sunday’s exciting finish to the Cup Series’ first street race in its 75th season.

After hours of rain flooded the 12-turn, 2.2-mile course and scuttled the end of the Xfinity stop, it cleared up in time to get the Cup Series on the tricky track, albeit for a race cut short by the looming darkness.

The wet conditions added another element to an already challenging course that included seven 90-degree turns, and transitions from concrete to asphalt and back. But the drivers figured it out on the fly, and van Gisbergen powered to the front in the final laps to secure the win.

INSTANT REACTION: NASCAR’s first try at a downtown Chicago race won over at least some of the skeptics that had wondered aloud about its feasibility ever since it was announced a year ago.

“Truthfully, for a street course, I think it raced better than I thought it would,” said Chase Briscoe, who finished 20th. “There are definitely parts that can be improved like widening the track and other certain things. But, all things considered, it surprised me compared to what I thought it was going to be.”

OUTSIDERS’ VIEWS: The New York Times called Chicago and NASCAR “an odd couple with high hopes” in one headline.

“On a rainy holiday weekend, the city of Chicago and the sport of NASCAR celebrated the unlikeliest of marriages with a lakefront ceremony,” began Mitch Smith’s story under that headline. “Chicago handled the decorations, with its soaring skyscrapers as the backdrop, as well as the catering, with Vienna Beef hot dogs, Garrett Popcorn and wedges of Lou Malnati’s deep-dish for sale.”

From Milwaukee — still stinging from losing its NASCAR event at Road America — Journal Sentinel columnist Dave Kallmann admitted to being swayed by the events.

“NASCAR was abandoning the best road course in the United States for a rinky-dink, designed-on-a-video-game, built-on-the-fly course jammed between hotels and a park,” Kallmann wrote.

He later added: “Still, NASCAR and the city delivered a wildly entertaining and completely unpredictable Grant Park 220 and the first debut winner in 60 years. All things considered, who would have predicted that?”

BOTTOM LINE: The race attracted newcomers – 80% of tickets reportedly went to first-time buyers – and they fought gamely through uncertainty and miserable conditions. NBC reached unfamiliar viewers around the country, and the race drew international attention no other venue on the schedule would have.

As the Journal Sentinel’s Kallmann said: “For 49 weeks, some traditionalists blathered about the impossibility of a good race on a street course, the certainty fans would be killed in Chicago’s dangerous downtown, the inconvenience to shop owners and tourists and the way the weekend was marketed to new fans who didn’t care while the diehards were ignored.

“The concerns proved largely unfounded.”

RAIN TOTAL: How much did we get Sunday? Chicago’s average amount for July is 3.7 inches, and some parts of the area recorded 9 inches during the storm that caused widespread flash flooding and delayed the inaugural NASCAR event, according to preliminary amounts reported by the National Weather Service.

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