By David Morgan, Associate Editor
CHICAGO – Denny Hamlin will lead the field to green for the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series street race on Sunday after snagging the pole for the Grant Park 220.
Noting that the first day on the 2.2-mile, 12-turn course in downtown Chicago was “my single best day at the race track in all of my career”, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota took the top spot in the waning moments of qualifying with a lap of one minute, 28.435 seconds.
Tyler Reddick, who drives for 23XI Racing – the team Hamlin co-owns with Chicago sports legend Michael Jordan – will join him on the front row to give Toyota the top two starters.
“Just the overall performance of our team today,” Hamlin said of what gave him the edge for the pole.
“From lap one of practice to the last lap of qualifying just having been strong on a track that is really tough, and everyone had to learn it at the same rate of speed. No one has got a veteran advantage at this type of race track. So, it’s just a proud moment for our team to be able to come here on equal footing with everyone and be able to perform as good as they did today.”
“I’ve never felt like I’ve had more speed in reserve than what I did today. I just knew that I can go get that. Do you want me to run four tenths faster? Just areas I can go and get that. Now, there’s risks with that.
“I think in the race I’m just going to have to back it down slightly to take away 20 to 30 percent of risk. You’re going to have to be a half second slower a lap, but you’re going to take away the risk of making a huge mistake. And I feel like when you have a car that’s as fast as mine, I’m able to back that up and still run a fast enough pace.”
V8 Supercars ace Shane Van Gisbergen made a statement on Saturday by putting up the third fastest time after being the fastest in practice earlier in the day. The New Zealand native, driving the No. 91 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 entry will look to continue to turn heads on Sunday in his Cup Series debut.
Hamlin was quick to give props to Van Gisbergen for the speed he has shown all day, noting that he is able to get more out of his car with his previous street course experience in Supercars.
“The biggest thing I noticed is the guy is lightning fast, and in all of the corners I feel super uncomfortable using that extra three inches against the wall,” Hamlin said. “So, where the track is the narrowest and where you saw Chase (Elliott) and those guys kind of get into the wall is where he is extremely fast.
“He’s just got a feel for those barriers and the car control that he has. That’s his advantage right now is that we’re not used to having to cut the corners that tight and he is. It’s been impressive what he’s done today for sure.”
The remainder of the top-10 starters for the 220-lap race will be Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, Michael McDowell, Kyle Larson, former Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button, Joey Logano, and AJ Allmendinger.
An Unforgiving Street Course
It’s no secret that street course racing is unforgiving, with the tight confines of racing on city streets leaving no room for error. Unfortunately for a number of drivers, they stepped over that edge in practice and qualifying as they found themselves in the wall.
Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were some of the drivers that ran into trouble during the 50-minute practice session to start the day.
It was no harm, no foul for Cindric and Haley, but the same could not be said for Stenhouse, who struck the inside wall in Turn 8 before his Chevrolet ricocheted back into the outside wall.
The 2023 Daytona 500 champion was able to limp his No. 47 Chevrolet back to pit road, but the damage was enough to keep him from being able to put down a qualifying lap and he will start deep in the field in 36th place.
“I was trying to push it,” Stenhouse said. “Turned in a little bit too late, clipped the inside wall and then got the outside wall there. A little suspension damage. Not sure how much yet. Hate it for all my Sunny D/Mariano’s guys.”
Then came qualifying, where two former Cup Series champions in Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick crashed in the first round of qualifying.
Elliott’s trouble came in the same area of the track in which Stenhouse crashed and in the same manner. Elliott clipped the inside wall getting into Turn 8 and then was sent straight into the outside wall.
Before his crash, Elliott was struggling with speed and only managed the 26th fastest time before his day was done.
I just made a mistake,” Elliott said. “Turned in too soon, clipped the will on the right and then hit the wall on the left.”
Then came Harvick’s crash in Turn 1 as time expired in qualifying and it was déjà vu all over again. Like Stenhouse and Elliott before him, Harvick hit the inside wall and would up in the outside wall. He will start 35th on Sunday.
“We were going to be back there anyway,” Harvick said afterward, alluding to the lack of speed in his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford prior to the crash.
Blaney Gets Street Course Advice from Team Penske INDYCAR Drivers
Sunday may be the first street course race in NASCAR Cup history, but Team Penske has an ace in the hole heading into Chicago with its NTT IndyCar Series teams that can provide some advice to the organization’s NASCAR drivers.
Ryan Blaney in particular noted that he was able to talk to both Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin about their experiences on street courses for some pointers on what to look out for this weekend.
“I talked to Newgarden and Scotty Mac, kind of about their approach to street racing,” Blaney said. “Like what’s it about, what do you look for? You’re running different cars, but still kind of same thing. I think the biggest thing they told me was pretty interesting. He’s like the track’s gonna get better all weekend as race cars run on it. It gets faster and faster. I was like, that’s kind of neat.
“It’s just not something I really thought about, you know, with our stuff. Usually it gets slower as you put rubber down, but so that was kind of interesting to learn from those guys. That was about it. The cars are different, the restarts are different, beating and banging, but yeah, the track surface thing I found pretty interesting.”