Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – CHICAGO, IL – Welcome to the unknown. Welcome to a NASCAR Cup Series race of untested variables and potential surprises.
Welcome to an event where no driver has an advantage born of experience in a Next Gen car.
Welcome to another NASCAR “first” — Sunday’s Grant Park 220 on the newly constructed Chicago Street Race (5:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
NASCAR’s finest will take to the streets of the Windy City, racing on a 2.2-mile, 12-turn circuit in the shadow of Chicago’s skyscrapers and just yards from the shores of Lake Michigan.
In looking for a favorite on the narrow, unforgiving course, AJ Allmendinger comes to mind, both for his obvious talent on road courses and for his history of street course racing in IndyCars.
“Chicago is going to be very interesting,” Allmendinger said. “A street course takes me back to my roots of racing open-wheel and being at a lot of different street courses. I think it’s a venue that, if it’s put on right, we can have a great weekend there as an industry.
“It’s a race track that a small mistake can have a huge penalty when it’s that narrow and surrounded by concrete walls. Anything can happen, and we’re not really sure what to expect. 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.”
It goes without saying that NASCAR’s Next Gen race car is a far cry from an IndyCar. Like the rest of the Cup drivers, Allmendinger will start from square one in learning how the heavier Next Gen car will behave during NASCAR’s first-ever visit to a circuit comprised of city streets.
It’s also germane to point out that Allmendinger’s last three street course races, all in 2013, ended in DNFs (did not finish). He fell out of the Long Beach race with a gear box failure, and in two attempts in a doubleheader at Detroit’s Belle Isle, he crashed before completing a lap on consecutive days.
Will there be ample passing zones in Chicago? NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. remarked during a reconnaissance trip around the course that the racing surface actually seemed wider than he expected after first trying the iRacing simulation of the track.
Like Allmendinger, Michael McDowell has street course experience in different types of cars. He ran an IndyCar at Surfer’s Paradise in Australia in 2005, competed in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series at Long Beach in 2006 and drove at Trois-Rivieres in Quebec in the Grand American Road Racing Series in 2006.
“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, who drives the No. 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports. 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.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers will have to be quick studies in Chicago
Before NASCAR Cup Series drivers race on Sunday, their counterparts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series will take to the Chicago Street Race in Saturday’s The Loop 121 (5 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Cole Custer has spent plenty of time on a simulated version of the 2.2-mile street course, but he won’t experience the reality of the urban circuit until the weekend.
“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,” said Custer, who nailed down a Playoff berth with his victory on the Portland International Raceway road course on June 3.
“The good news is that we’re all on an equal playing field. It’s such an unknown on the schedule, but I’m excited for the challenge. We’ve been fast all year, so hopefully that continues this weekend at Chicago.”
Custer has climbed to fourth in the Xfinity Series standings on the strength of nine straight top-10 finishes. After a slow start to the season, he has established himself as a formidable championship contender.
“I think we’ve found the rhythm that we were missing in the beginning part of the season,” said the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. “We’re starting to hit our stride, and this top-10 streak and the Portland win show that. When we started the season, we were a brand new team, so we had to work on communication and figuring out what I needed in this No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang.
“I’m happy with where we are as a team at this point in the season. 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.”