Downtown Chicago course presents significant challenge for NASCAR Cup Series

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Joe Gibbs racing crew member John Ianham checks tires as preparation for the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race Weekend continues Friday, June 30, 2023, in downtown Chicago. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)

CHICAGO – There are seven 90-degree turns. There are manhole covers, and transitions from concrete to asphalt and back. The margin for error is small, and any rain will make the course exponentially more difficult.

Welcome to the first street race in NASCAR Cup Series history.

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NASCAR brings its 75th season to downtown Chicago this weekend for an experience unlike any other on the circuit. With Lake Michigan and Grant Park serving as the backdrop, the 12-turn, 2.2-mile course begins right in front of Buckingham Fountain and races by several downtown landmarks.

No one is exactly sure what to expect, and there will be just 50 minutes of practice time before qualifying for the Xfinity Series and Cup Series. Saturday's The Loop 121 might be the most closely monitored Xfinity Series race of the season for the Cup drivers.

“There's always going to be concerns,” Brad Keselowski said. “We have concerns every week. It's not just this week, but there are different concerns this week. ... It's new, and new is exciting, new is concerning.

“And so I think there's a mixed bag of emotions, but I think it's really important for the sport to try different things, to not be scared to fail. We will not grow at all as a sport if we're overly concerned to fail.”

NASCAR ran 19 Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, a 45-mile drive from downtown, but it was too far from Chicago to attract a new audience and NASCAR pulled out after the 2019 season.

Distance won't be a problem this time around.

“It's so cool. Racing within a city, there aren't many racing drivers that get that opportunity,” said Jenson Button, a former Formula One world champion who is competing in Sunday's Cup race. “I've had the opportunity in Monaco, in Singapore, but not in a stock car. So this is a new exciting opportunity.”

Ross Chastain, who won the Cup Series race in Nashville on Sunday night, is getting used to his new surroundings. He found a place with a good breakfast burrito near his hotel, and he is planning to walk to the course this weekend.

“Getting up and walking to work, I've never been able to say that in my life,” he said. “I always had to drive to the farm, drive to the race shop, drive to the track. I've never walked to work before, so we're getting to live the full Chicago city life.”

Chastain's Chicago experience will reach another level when he takes on the traffic of a Cup race on a narrow, bumpy course with little tolerance for any mistakes — almost like a normal Windy City commute.

“You can very easily lose a race car around this place,” said Chris Buescher, who is teammates with Keselowski at RFK Racing. “I don't have to see the track in person yet to say that. Lost many of them on the simulator.”

The simulators got plenty of work this week ahead of Chicago. Keselowski said he wrecked a lot more than Buescher, but Buescher said Keselowski arrived after he hit several walls in his simulation work.

Weather also could factor into this weekend's races. There is rain in the forecast for Saturday and Sunday.

“Everything gets more difficult when it rains on any track, but especially a street course,” Button said.

“Racing in the wet, it would be nuts. It would be pretty crazy.”


AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman contributed to this report.


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