By David Morgan, Associate Editor
CHICAGO – NASCAR. Fourth of July weekend. A first ever street course race. Expect fireworks.
Former Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button has been able to experience street course racing in other forms of motorsports throughout his career, but even he is unsure of what will happen when the green flag drops for the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 220 on the Chicago Street Course.
“It’s so cool – racing within a city,” Button said. “There aren’t many racing drivers that get that opportunity. I’ve had the opportunity at Monaco and in Singapore, but not in a stock car. So, this is a new and exciting opportunity. For me, I think the racing is going to be out-of-this-world and exciting.”
Though the driver of the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford has yet to turn a lap or walk around the 12 turn, 2.2-mile course that winds its way around Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, he has some ideas of potential spots that could be action-packed.
“I think Turn 1, Turn 2, Turn 5 and the last corner are the main overtaking places,” Button explained. “Other sections of the track are too narrow, like Turn 9 – that long left-hander. It’s quite a narrow section, but that has its own challenges: First of all, keeping our car out of the wall, but also trying to thread the needle to go through that section.
“It’s going to feel extremely quick. The speeds won’t be extremely high, but when the barriers are that close, it feels unbelievably fast. It feels like they are narrowing in on you throughout the race.
“So, it’s a challenging track. You have to throw the bumps into it, you’ve got the overpasses… it’s going to be tough for us to learn in 50 minutes, to have confidence in the car and track, to push it and brake where we think we can brake, because one little lock-up and you’re in the wall. It’s not like you have a safety net like you have on most road courses. Tricky, but well-up for the challenge. I think we can put on a good show.”
If racing on the tight confines of a street course weren’t challenging enough, Mother Nature may have a few tricks up her sleeve with chances for rain throughout the weekend. Button knows a thing or two about how precipitation will affect the varying surfaces around a street course and is ready should the storm clouds roll in on race day.
“Everything gets more difficult when it rains – on any track, but especially a street course,” Button said. “One: Because, I don’t know the last time it rained here, and the oils from a road car which will be on the track. You won’t really have an issue with it in the dry, but as soon as it rains, it becomes slick. So, that’s an issue.
“Bumps make it more difficult in the wet, there’s no run-off, so if you want to lock-up and you’re in the wall – exactly the same in the dry. But, it’s more likely to happen because there is so much less grip. Normally, you’d take wet lines which would be a little different to dry lines, but you’re limited because the circuit’s so narrow. So it’s basically finding a line that you feel comfortable with, so you can get on the power as soon as possible.
“Racing in the wet… it’ll be nuts. It’ll be pretty crazy. Totally up for it. Most of the guys wouldn’t have driven on street courses, and most of the guys wouldn’t have raced in the wet. So, it’s going to be mayhem out there – but in a good and positive way. A little bit nuts… Like a sprinkling of nuts, whereas in the wet, it’s going to be a shower of nuts.”
This weekend marks Button’s second Cup Series start after getting roughed up in his debut at Circuit of the Americas in Austin earlier this year and given the characteristics of a street course, he is expecting varying strategies from the driving corps.
Whether it’s the aggressive drivers or those that are more risk averse that come out on top is still to be determined, but Button has a game plan on trying to survive the 100-lap race.
“You’re definitely going to see different styles of racing here, I think,” Button said. “You have the aggressors, and you are going to have the drivers that sit back and just let it unfold, knowing that there’s going to be another restart anyways at the end of the race.
“I think survival is the main thing. Having a car at the end of the race that’s still working, and everything’s pointing in the right direction. I mean, if you’re quick enough and right at the front, you’re going to be aggressive from the word ‘go.’ But, if you’re in the middle of the pack, you’re going to be trying to stay out of trouble until two-thirds of the race is done, and you’re still pointing in the right direction. Then, you can push on, hopefully to a good result.
“If it’s dry, it’s going to be a real challenge. Overtaking is not going to be easy, because there is no room for error. If it’s wet, it’s 100-times more difficult. I think we’re all excited about this race.
“We have no idea how it’s going to go, but I think we have to, as much as we should, be respecting each other more than we probably did at COTA – respecting the track is a big one as well.”
Button and the rest of the Cup Series field will get their first look at the Chicago Street Course on Saturday morning with just a 50-minute practice session before heading straight into qualifying. Then it’s on to Sunday’s main event, with the race scheduled for 5:30 pm ET on NBC and Peacock.