Photo: Walter G.Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Grant Park 220 on the Chicago Street Course

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

CHICAGO — The NASCAR Cup Series is heading into the unknown this weekend in Chicago.

While other racing series have had street course races in their lineup for years, NASCAR is taking its first crack at racing on a non-purpose-built course on Sunday with the running of the Grant Park 220 on the streets of Chicago, Illinois.

The 2.2-mile, 12-turn course will wind its way around Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan as the series hopes to capture the imagination of a whole new sector of the fan base as the Next Gen car thunders down the Windy City streets.

First imagined during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, the course was designed and raced virtually on iRacing before it was transformed into the reality being built before our very eyes.

How will this street course experiment play out? No one knows for sure, but it will definitely be something not to be missed when the green flag flies on Sunday afternoon.

“Like the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, we seized an incredible opportunity to add an unprecedented element to our schedule and take center stage in the heart of another major metropolitan market,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy.

“This is the ideal setting for the first-ever NASCAR Cup Series street race. The NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen cars will race along the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago, marking a truly historic moment for our sport.”

The Return of the Road Course Ringers

As NASCAR is breaking new ground in its first street race, the uniqueness of the event has brought out some fresh and familiar faces to take part in Sunday’s race.

First is Jenson Button, who raced at Circuit of the Americas earlier this year and was part of the team that took a modified Next Gen car to Le Mans as a part of the Garage 56 program.

The former Formula 1 world champion has had his fair share of experience on street courses in other series and noted the Chicago course could be on par with others around the world.

“I think this is probably the first time I’ve raced in an actual city in a racing car,” Button said. “You know, Monaco is a principality, so I wouldn’t class it as a city. But, I think this will definitely bring in a different fanbase. I know that true NASCAR fans might think it’s a bit of an unusual type of track, so why do we bother with it? But, why not?

“I think it’s great that they’re willing to attract something different, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s one race on the calendar. I love that we’re trying new things, just like taking a stock car to Le Mans – amazing. What a great opportunity, and I think it brought in a very different fanbase. I think this will do something similar.”

Meanwhile, the Trackhouse Racing Project 91 entry has lined up another star from the other side of the world to take part in Sunday’s race. Much like Kimi Raikkonen did at Watkins Glen and COTA, Trackhouse will be hoping V8 Supercars ace Shane Van Gisbergen can bring his expertise to bear on the Chicago layout.

“There’s a lot of anticipation from everyone for what the first street race is going to be like next. I’m looking forward to it. The track is similar in some ways to tracks we have, but also pretty different with not much run-off and how narrow it is in spots.

“It’s going to be intense. Just trying to take it all in. this week and see how it all works. The pit stops are quite different from what I’m used to, so just trying to understand that and how it works and get ready for it.”

Johnson Withdraws from Chicago after Family Tragedy

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was scheduled to take part in Sunday’s race in Chicago, but earlier this week, news broke that his in-laws had passed away in an apparent murder-suicide in Oklahoma.

Prior to those events, Johnson was gearing up for his fourth race of the 2023 season with his No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet on the heels of taking part in the Garage 56 program at Le Mans.

“Legacy Motor Club has elected to withdraw the No. 84 Carvana Chevrolet from this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series event in Chicago,” the team said in a statement. “The Johnson family has asked for privacy at this time and no further statements will be made.”

“We are saddened by the tragic deaths of members of Chandra Johnson’s family,” NASCAR added in its own statement. “The entire NASCAR family extends its deepest support and condolences during this difficult time to Chandra, Jimmie and the entire Johnson & Janway families.”

By the Numbers

What: Grant Park 220, NASCAR Cup Series race No. 18 of 36

Where: Streets of Chicago – Grant Park – Chicago, Illinois

TV/Radio: NBC/Peacock, 5:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size:  12-turn, 2.2-mile street course

Race Length: 100 laps (220 miles)

Stage Lengths: 20 laps (Stage 1), 25 laps (Stage 2), 55 laps (Final stage)

From the Driver’s Seat

Kyle Busch – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet: “It’s really rough. It’s bumpy. It’s slippery. There’s some corners that are very challenging.. some blind ones at that.

“When you’re going around the Bean on the left-hander, that’s really, really slippery and there’s a huge bump going through (turn) nine before you get into (turn) 10. The wall in (turn) eight before you go around the left-hander is, to me, really narrow over there. You’re barely trying to miss getting your right front ripped off; not bouncing off that and killing your car on the left side.

“So there could be more room given over there, I feel like. That’s probably a really tight spot that could use a little bit of help, just based off of what the simulator is telling us.

“But other than that, it’s going to be a tight street course. That’s what tight street courses are.

“It’s going to be a survival race. I feel like we had a couple of those – I can’t remember the last one that we had, but I want to say it’s like turn one at Indy (Road Course). If you start 20th, you might as well not even accelerate to get to turn one because it’s probably going to look like the (Charlotte) ROVAL restart that we had when we all went off into the barrier in turn one, you know what I mean. It’s survival.”

Michael McDowell, No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford: “I feel like street courses are so tough by yourself, that your level of aggression is turned down, sort of automatically, because you’re just trying to not make a mistake on your own – let alone when you’re trying to set up a pass and things like that.

“If you look at our style of road racing, for sure, it’s super aggressive wheel-to-wheel. But, we always have a lot of run-off and areas that have a lot of forgiveness. So, Turn 1 at Indy: You bury it down in there, because there’s an oval, grass, access routes. But, when there’s a 90-degree with a concrete barrier, you’re going to think twice about burying it down in there. It’s just the reality of it.

“Calculated aggression is going to be what wins this race, and I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of what we typically see on our road courses – in particular, on the starts.”

Christopher Bell, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota: “It’s going to be a bunch of risk management. We know that in order to produce the best lap you are going to have to charge the braking zones as hard as you can. You are going to have to push your exits as close to the wall as you can, but there is going to be a lot of risk in doing that.

“It’s certainly going to be a huge risk management thought process going into practice and qualifying. There’s no margin for error. You are against the wall every corner of every lap. It’s going to be a race of survival, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, July 1

  • NASCAR Cup Series Practice (1:30 pm – USA Network)
  • NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (2:30 pm – USA Network)

Sunday, July 2

  • Grant Park 220 on the Streets of Chicago (5:30 pm – 100 laps, 220 miles – NBC/Peacock)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.